“…I’ve got one question to ask you. Do you consider yourself English or Jamaican?”
It’s the early 80’s. The Falklands War still firmly casts a shadow over working class England and Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister has led unemployment figures soaring through the roof. Meet 12 year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a bullied schoolboy who befriends a group of skinheads and eventually becomes an integral part of their gang. Having lost his father during the Falklands conflict, Shaun is bewildered with his life and in dire need of a role model to help steer him in the right direction. Woody the cheerful leader of the bunch steps in and offers Shaun a new way of life.
Unreservedly nonjudgemental, Woody and his mates take Shaun under their wing and with a new hairdo and Ben Sherman shirt in tow, Shaun becomes one of them. But things start to take a turn for the worse when an old friend arrives back in town to muted cheers. Combo, played impeccably by Stephen Graham, is fresh out of prison and is an old-school skinhead still clinging to the bitterly racist, neanderthal, idyllic vision of the National Front movement. Sensing his arrival as an unwelcoming experience for the majority of the gang, he begins to attempt to divide the group from within.
When I first read about this movie featuring skinheads I immediately assumed it was about Neo-Nazis but director Shane Meadows does everything he can to disassociate the culture from racism without naively denying it’s existence. It is after all a semi-autobiographical tale of his own younger years. Shaun is Shane (Shaun Fields/Shane Meadows) and much of what we witness on screen did actually happen in his real life. An ignorant viewer might be stunned to see Milky, who is of Jamaican descent, be thought of in such high regards amongst the skinheads without the colour of his skin ever becoming a factor. Meadows clearly wishes to help make all of us who were not part of that culture aware that being a skinhead in the 80’s had nothing to do with being racist. Being a skinhead was a way of life. Being a skinhead was about having that sense of belonging and instead of glorifying the outdated, clichéd image of rebellion and racist beliefs that they are so often linked with, he presents them as an easy going, fun, loyal family who feel free amongst one another and through inevitable hardships have been left vulnerable to a society that has simply forgotten about them and left them outcast at the side of the road. It’s not until Combo injects himself and his prison buddies into the group that the movie delves into a darker, political path.
Shane Meadows fifth and perhaps his most important feature film is a masterclass in storytelling and character development. When we first meet Shaun he is a stringy, shy boy marred by what he believes is the ultimate betrayal by his father (and his country). Despite his mother trying her best it’s clear Shaun isn’t getting what he needs. When Woody, Milky, Lol, Gadget, Kelly, Trev and Smell all take a liking to him, he begins to change into a more confident young man without ever really losing his innocence. There’s a reason he feels a connection with these people, they all have their own personal burdens to deal with whether it be domestic abuse or loosing a parent. Combo, portraying the figurehead of susceptibility, uses these soft spots to earn their support. There is a particular poignant scene when Combo gathers them all and delivers a patriotic speech that is meant to divide them, and to be fair it does. When Combo mentions the Falklands Shaun reacts violently, the exact reaction he was looking for. Shaun ends up following Combo but soon finds out that he may have made a huge mistake. When Combo realises that the gang have moved on and aren’t committed to following him, he resorts to the only action he feels will elicit a response; violence. What is equally so heartbreaking is that even Combo, the villain we’re all suppose to jeer and boo, has his own touching backstory and while we don’t ever really feel sympathy towards him, Stephen Graham does manage to brandish some human elements to the character. It’s all a harsh reminder of what effect society can have on a human being.
Preluding the sombre eventuality, there’s plenty of humour to be found especially in the first third before it all kicks off. Meadows is famed for allowing his actors to improvise on set rather than have them memorise a script. It’s an approach that some filmmakers don’t appreciate but it works here. There’s some social awkwardness at times but it only helps to heighten the realism of the specific scene. What makes this work is the fact that it looks like Meadows handpicked a group of youngsters from a youth centre and promoted them from scallywags to screen stars. Obviously this wasn’t the case since they are all extremely talented actors (despite some being amateurs) but it adds to the believability of their characters. The film is also brought to life by the superbly chosen soundtrack that accompanies it featuring the likes of reggae legends Toots and the Maytals and 80’s classics such as “Tainted Love” and “Come on Eileen“. But the most inspired pick of the bunch is the inclusion of Italian classical pianist Ludovico Einaudi whose hauntingly beautiful “Ritonare” and “Fuori Dal Mondo” bring an extra layer of depth to the overall atmospheric sound. The final scene heralds an astonishing acoustic cover of The Smiths “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by long time Meadows friend and musical collaborator Gavin Clarke of Clayhill.
Meadows unshackles a breathtakingly real portrait of a humdrum 1980’s England. Amidst the scornful faces there is little hope but in Shaun he manages to create a sympathetic character the audience can somehow relate to and Turgoose perfectly delivers a truthful and mesmerising performance, which is some accomplishment considering it was his first film role. Even during his wayward moments he still firmly remains the heart and soul of the movie. The supporting cast is beyond amazing. Led by Woody and his girlfriend Lol (Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure – both standouts amongst the gang), each member while perhaps not stealing scenes play their part in creating a certain credibility not often found in period movies. For me the movie would just not work without Stephen Graham. Despite being a short man, his menacing demeanour and emotionally captivating performance haunted each scene in which he was apart of. His overall contribution to the movie is probably on par with Turgoose. What Meadows captures with these two is lightning in a bottle.
While the cast deserve their plaudits, it’s Shane Meadows who shall forever receive my unabashed praise. The man is a genius and I have zero qualms in stating that this film changed my life. In fact it’s the third time one of his movies have moved me to such a proclamation. Meadows is an inspiration to all aspiring filmmakers, writers and storytellers and having read and watched many, many interviews with him over the years, he seems to have a genuine connection with his cast and crew that so many filmmakers lack and it really comes across on screen. He’s been compared to an early Martin Scorsese and it’s easy to see the similarities. I would say Meadows is one to look out for in the future but in reality he already landed years ago and while he may never rise to much fame in Hollywood, he’s already cemented his name in British Film history as one of the best. If you don’t believe me just go watch Dead Man’s Shoes or A Room For Romeo Brass. And if you still don’t believe me then I won’t bother to waste my breath trying to convince you any longer.
Be sure to check out the follow-up TV series This Is England ’86 and This Is England ’88. Trust me when I say, if you have any real appreciation for gritty realism rather than over the top action scenes or bullshit CGI then this is for you.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter