Jarv’s Best of 2000-2009. Number 5: This is England
It’s hard for me to write objectively about this film, being as I recognise so much of it. It is, quite simply, my favourite British film of the last decade- and it’s got some stiff competition for that title.
Shane Meadows is one of Britain’s most accomplished writer/ directors. The man has never made a bad film (I’m not sure he knows how to). For this, and I think this will be looked back on as his masterpiece, he tapped into the miserable upbringing he endured on a grisly Uttoxeter council estate in the early 80’s. This is, through sheer coincidence, an England that’s making an unwelcome return (we’re stuck in a big pointless war again, there’s massive youth unemployment and disaffection, race tension, the far right is on the rise, and the unions keep striking) , but as timely as Meadows’ film is, it isn’t mere coincidence that makes this so superb.
The year is 1983. England is, to put it mildly, a strange and unpleasant place. Rampant Thatcherism is laying waste to many towns in the North. The recession is at its peak, and unemployment is in the stratosphere. England is a sorry mess.
For 12 year old Shaun (debutant Thomas Turgoose), England is a nightmare. It certainly is not the “sceptered isle, this other Eden” that Shakespeare waxed lyrical over. It is frankly horrible. His father was shipped back from the Falklands in a body bag, his mother is permanently skint so he’s dressed in shabby out of date second-hand clothing, and as a result he’s a target for every bully in school. He’s got no friends, no prospects, no role model and no hope.
After a typically dreadful day, he blunders into a group of skinheads- lead by the charismatic Woody (a fine performance from Joe Gilgun) , a bored and disaffected group that spend their days smashing up empty council houses (as if you could tell the difference), drinking, and getting high while listening to records. The skinheads take him under their wing, shave his head and give him, in his own words, the best day of his life. These aren’t, and let’s be clear about this, racist kids. they are skinheads, but it’s a uniform that defines their group.
Things look up for Shaun, his life is improving, he’s got friends, everything is becoming better. Unfortunately, the gang is shattered by the arrival of the sociopathic Combo (a downright terrifying performance from Stephen Graham). He sees a younger, purer, version of himself in Shaun and indoctrinates him with vile National Front racist dogma and violence. It all (predictably) spirals out of control, resulting in a savage and probably fatal beating being dished out to the black gang member- Milky.
I’ve already mentioned the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Turgoose in particular manages to exude a touching innocence, despite his eventual descent into NF behaviour. The “paki-bashing” sequence in the shop in particular is horrifying. He becomes indoctrinated, not because he is actually racist, but because he’s desperate for some sort of identity and craves some justification for his father’s death. He believes in England because he has to- otherwise his father dying off the coast of Argentina was a pointless and futile gesture.
Aside from the performances, the direction in this film is spectacular. The opening in particular with a montage of news and cultural images from 1983 (Maggie is followed by Roland Rat) set to a ska soundtrack, defines the time in the most bitterly ironic terms. On one hand there’s the miners striking and causing untold misery, and on the other there is the massive cultural embarrassment of a damned unfunny puppet (catchphrase: “yeeeeaaaaaah!”) . It’s a clever mix of the kitsch and the miserable and I think probably the ideal introduction to 1980’s England.
This is England is a film that resonates with me personally. I grew up in a grim Northern town in the 1980’s. I was a good few years younger than Shaun is, but I do recognise the landscape and I was sufficiently news aware to understand the misery of the Miner’s strike. I also remember the National Front on the march, and I can recall specific race related violence. I was too young to have a reasonable opinion about any of these things, and I am horribly middle class, but I do recognise the roving gangs of feral youths and I do understand Shaun’s loneliness and unhappiness.
This is, I believe, an important film. The fact is, at the end of the day, that the UK is a mongrel nation. We’ve had immigrants in and out of this country for millenia, and as a result there is no such thing as English “identity”. This dichotomy is clearly shown in this film in that the skinheads listen to Jamaican influenced Ska music while at the same time spout the most loathsome racist rhetoric. One of the defining features of “Englishness” in 21st century Britain is tolerance, racism does not sit well with us, and fascism is anathema to our cultural makeup (despite what the papers try to make out).
We may banter with Australians, argue with the Scots, tell jokes about the Irish, but we do not, and I can’t stress this enough, raid newsagents and beat up Asians because we’re bored. The BNP will never take power in this country, and for that I am thankful. This may be England for some, but it isn’t for me, and, as the sad finale shows, it isn’t for Shaun either.
This is England is an unforgettable film, it’s an important and depressing masterpiece that perfectly captures a moment in time when the country was in crisis. It’s a lesson we should learn, because if the powers that be don’t pay attention, this is where we are headed.
Next up, just because I haven’t wallowed in enough misery in this list, is Aronofsky’s soul-shattering Requiem for a Dream.
As I’m now in the run up to the best film of the last decade- here’s a quick recap if you haven’t seen them-
Or the complete page with all of them and the regional list is here