From all that I know and have seen on England in the eighties, I’m incredibly surprised that anyone lived to write or make films about it. This Is England is a movie about when lighthearted, victimless destruction takes a turn toward the dark heart of nationalism.
Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) has moved to a new town with his mother, his father having died in the Falklands. It is the Summer of 1983, and he has no friends. At the conclusion of the school year, Shaun is taken in by a gang of skinheads led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and they have a grand time … until Combo (Stephen Graham) emerges from prison and has ideas about nationalism (specifically in regards to “Paki Bastard”) … and the timbre of the gang changes completely.
The first thing that many people consider when they think of skinheads is ugly attitudes and violence. Shane Meadows shows in This Is England that it can frequently be a simple matter of aestheticism rather than ideology. Certainly, Woody’s gang is into underage smoking and drinking, but their goods are purchased legally and they indulge in no further criminal activities. The movie has a sense of fun and joy under Woody’s leadership, and it is difficult to feel uneasy about the fate of Shaun.
Under Combo, the film is ugly, yet Combo is not a caricature of nationalism. This Is England is inspired by Meadows’ own youth, and as such has an authenticity and depth about it. A skinhead can practice doublethink, but is often incapable of mastering it: how can one complain about immigrants “coming in and stealing our jobs” while qualifying that he’s perfectly okay with immigrants who earn their way?
One might expect violence from This Is England, but the biggest lesson that one can learn – and, again, rare in movies – is that there is a major difference between threatened violence and actual violence, and between victimless “crimes” and actual criminal activity.
This Is England proves that everything is fun until someone oversteps a line and that, after a watershed, everything in someone’s life must be reassessed. Meadows has expertly captured the spirit of the age, and he did it early in the form of graffiti: “Maggie is a twat”.