According to director Shane "A Room For Romeo Brass" Meadows, This Is England is his most personal film to date. It shows. As well as wearing its heart on its exquisitely pressed Ben Sherman sleeve, the main character is called Shaun Fields. Shane Meadows? Shaun Fields? Very subtle, Mr Meadows. Very subtle...
Shaun (remarkable newcomer Thomas Turgoose) is a 12-year-old going through a troubled, early 80s, pre-pubescent time. He’s recently lost his father to the Falklands War, his fashion sense — flares, rubbish hair — gets him bullied on a regular basis and his still grieving mum doesn’t really understand. Stomping home from a particularly dire day at school, he runs into a group of skinheads lead by Woody (the charming Joseph Gilgun). Surprisngly sympathetic, Woody gets Shaun to chill with them a while. Woody likes Shaun’s attitude — for all his problems, Shaun doesn’t take things lying down — and brings him into the gang.
For Shaun, otherwise facing a long summer break of nothing at all, it’s a life-changing moment: for once in his short life, he belongs. The gang even club together and get him a makeover, shaving his head and sorting out his wardrobe, even if his mum nearly wrecks it with the boot compromise. Hell, he even gets his first snog courtesy of hanger-on Smell — ‘it rhymes with Michelle’ (a great performance from Rosemund Hanson, another newcomer). Then old skinhead ‘leader’ Combo (Stephen Graham) reappears. He’s been in prison for three years, doesn’t like what the country’s become since he went inside, and wants to impart the ‘knowledge’ he picked up inside: basically ranting National Front rhetoric.
The gang, inevitably, splits. Woody, his girlfriend Lol (an excellent performance by Vicky McClure) and black friend Milky (Meadows regular Andrew Shim) leave. Shaun though stays, convinced by Combo’s sympathy for his war hero father. Soon though, Combo’s ranting is shown up to be exactly what it is: not so much National Front as complete front. He’s as scared and unsure of his future as the rest of them, and the right wing philosophy is just something to cling to.
It may sound heavy but it isn’t. This Is England is just a great, beautifully observed and haunting little film. After some horrible blips such as the terminally twee Miss Potter, the British film industry needed a steel toecap where the sun doesn’t shine and This Is England delivers with painful efficiency. Performances are natural, particularly Turgoose, a fine discovery, and Stephen Graham is astonishing as Combo. To engender sympathy in that leering face of hate is a remarkable achievement, and that’s due to his performance and the quality and nuance of Meadows’ screenplay. As he crumbles and Shaun realises the truth — as much as he can at his age — the film goes from very good to great. Tender, likeable, salutary: there won’t be many better this year.