Fresh, funny, stunningly filmed and acted, but rife with the queasy, prickling certainty of imminent violence.
He’s an original, Shane Meadows, a dark poet of urban England, louring and lyrical.
He takes the chintz and china of domestic life and twists them into something else – something unfamiliar and threatening. It was there in the invasive violence of Dead Man’s Shoes, and it’s here, too, in the concrete council block where Shaun Fields will get his first, bitter taste of manhood.
Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is Shane’s memory of his own childhood as an '80s skin, the ones who suffered the political kickback of record unemployment and national resentment like a boot in the face. Before, it was rasta and rude boys, black and white skins side by side, the mod spirit of '69. These were the good old days, says Meadows, and he plunges into them, unashamed, proud even, of who he was.
Toots and the Maytals blasts out of the soundtrack as 12-year-old Shaun falls in with a gang of skinheads. He doesn’t see it but Shaun is surrounded by the symbols of a divisive decade. His dad has been killed in the Falklands, a Pandora’s Box of patriotic violence, which, once unlocked seems to seep into the collective psyche. Walls are daubed with graffiti, an angry inarticulacy screaming ‘Maggie is a twat’. The first Asian-owned shop has opened on the corner.
Shaun is a lonely kid – he’s got the wrong hair, the wrong jeans, he’s bullied at school – and he drifts through a landscape in which, true to form, Meadows has found a stark, simple beauty: the way a tree casts a shadow on mottled brick; the view from a concrete car park; the wintry magnificence of a rotting row boat.
He’s got attitude to spare (don’t be fooled by that angel face and those big round eyes: "Piss off," are the first words out of his mouth) but there are holes in Shaun’s life, one of which will be filled by Woody (Joe Gilgun), an older, tattooed skin who offers Shaun his first vision of family in the film.
With Woody’s gang Shaun rules the swimming baths, plays football, hangs out with girls, goes ‘hunting’ in derelict houses. Like any youth cult, they’re reactionary and aggressive, they’re loud and they look different, but against our smug suspicions, these kids are alright. There’s an intimacy to the way they treat each other. In a film in which role models and authority figures are strikingly absent, that gang identity is a kind of therapy, an insulation against the anomie of Thatcherite Britain.
These scenes see Meadows at his most brash and brilliant. Visually, they confirm his place as one of the great British merging the harsh social realism of Alan Clarke with the strutting street energy of his hero, Scorsese. But it’s the writing that grabs you (though surely a lot of it was ad libbed) – for its hilarious clarity ("Would you like to suck my tits?" asks Smell, Shaun’s girlfriend) and simple honesty. "This has been the best day of my life," says Shaun to Woody, reminding you that there’s still a small, vulnerable boy beneath the new boots and braces.
But things change. Out of jail and into their lives comes Combo (Stephen Graham), an old mate of Woody’s, a new breed of skinhead. At a party he gives a racist account of his time inside, though Milky, a first-generation Jamaican immigrant, is in the room. There’s an embarrassed silence, amplified by a series of harsh, unforgiving close-ups.
The next day, in his dingy bed sit, Combo gives them the call to arms. "This is a proper fight," he says, drawing a line on the floor in spit, pick a side. Woody walks but Shaun stays, angry and confused: "I want to make my dad proud," he explains. If Woody offered family, Combo offers masculinity, the brute appeal of simple truths. He offers a short-cut to adulthood, to the world of violence that took his dad.
The film gets visually darker; ska and Motown give way to the discordant Oi! noise of the UK Subs, as Combo takes Shaun and the others to a meeting of the National Front. This is our passport to the early world of white power politics, greasy bikers and the backrooms of rural pubs.
"We’re going to revitalise that grand old word... England," says the suit to the skins, but at first there’s a sense of ridicule to the way these kids play at being racist. They leave poorly spelled graffiti in an underpass (Shaun just writes his name), they threaten Asian kids and rob the corner store. But it’s not until the question of family raises its head again that the film finally explodes into its only moment of outright violence.
That it’s Milky who takes a beating from Combo is predictable, but the circumstances are far from straightforward. They’ve been smoking weed, reminiscing about the early days (though there’s something in the air, like a timer ticking down to zero) when Milky starts talking about his family. "What do you think makes a bad dad?" asks Combo, before giving him a savage kicking.
But for all his swaggering, racist rhetoric, Combo’s no simple, tabloid skin. His hatred is really a nameless anger – all racism does is give it a label and a purpose, externalising something that comes from deep within him. It lets Combo understand himself in terms he can deal with. There’s a tear tattooed beneath his eye, and maybe that’s the only real thing about him.
That’s what you take away from This is England; that sense of self-revelation. It’s the honesty to say, ‘These are the things we did, this is who we were, and a lot of it wasn’t very nice’. That’s Meadows’ responsibility, but he couldn’t have done it without Thomas Turgoose. For all its expressive stylism and emotional subtlety, truth is, This is England would be nothing without Tommo. Everything turns on him, and he responds with a performance of staggering maturity.
In fact, in a film obsessed with fatherhood and masculinity, the film’s real bond is between director and star. "I could see myself in him," Meadows said after finding Tommo at a centre for disadvantaged kids in Grimsby, where much of the location shooting took place. For his part Turgoose lives the role from the inside out. He’s tender, vulnerable, cheeky, rude and heartfelt.
At the end of the film, you learn that he suffered his own tragedy – This is England is dedicated to his late mum – and while nothing can replace that loss, you know he’s just taken a giant step towards a future.
What he and Meadows have left behind is a striking, nuanced, magnificent film, executed with an expertise that, right now, puts it way ahead of the rest of our home-grown hits.
Dead Man’s Shoes suggested Shane Meadows could become the most exciting British director of his time.
Fresh, funny, stunningly filmed and acted, but rife with the queasy, prickling certainty of imminent violence. Edge-of-the-seat stuff.
An extraordinary film – candid, expressive, bleak and brilliant. Shane Meadows at the height of his powers.