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Scene by scene, This Is England gets the job done. Drawing on memories of a specific place and time—England in the early ’80s—writer-director Shane Meadows sketches with a keen eye for detail and the contours of experience. He nails the look and feel of a shabby provincial town and, more impressively, how it feels to live there, from the humble squat of a graffiti-strewn corner shop to the unassuming dignity of its Pakistani keeper. He’s adept at dead air, hanging out, killing time, alert to restless youth and the tribes they form.
His forte is style: shaved heads and ska records, tight jeans and skinny suspenders, Fred Perry polos and oxblood Docs. Meadows re-creates skinhead subculture with equal care for its accoutrements and origins as a youth movement based on working-class solidarity—not race hatred—the multicultural fusion of the London Mod and Jamaican Rude Boy.
And he remembers the spasm of post-colonial idiocy known as the Falklands War, a territorial skirmish between Britain and Argentina that stoked nationalist fervor and secured victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party in the 1983 general election. Less than 300 British lives were lost in the conflict, but a whole world is taken from a boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), left fatherless by an incomprehensible war. He clings to what little remains, a handful of photos and some hand-me-down trousers, bell-bottoms gone ratty at the ankles and way out of style. He rocks them regardless and is mercilessly teased.
Turgoose brings personality and pathos to the role, swiftly and vividly characterizing Shaun as a kind of callow seedling, fragile and adrift but full of untapped potential. Meadows states this eloquently in a quiet moment with Mom (Jo Hartley) then rams it home by cutting to—a dandelion. Bloody hell. If Shaun feels proud, will the movie cue a lion? England recovers from this rhetorical gaff, hardly worth a mention if it didn’t signal a larger problem. Scene to scene, things fall apart, creaky from the micro (montage) to the macro (control of theme and dramatic arc). Compelling at the episodic level, the movie botches the big picture. This isolated excellence and larger lack of nerve—all dots, no connection—grows ever more frustrating as England turns from the personal to the political, from character study to social studies.
Our pudgy little Shaun of the dead comes to life on contact with Woody (Joe Gilgun), the charismatic leader of a local skinhead crew. They’re good-natured kids, in a rough-and-tumble way, venting frustration on abandoned buildings instead of immigrant skulls. Invited, somewhat implausibly, to tag along, Shaun is liberated of more than his hair, as recognized by Mom in a wonderful scene, touching and droll, that finds her cornering the skins at their local café. Unleashing maternal fury over the unauthorized coiffure (and weirdly resembling some buttoned-up British doppelgänger of electro- ‘ho Peaches), she otherwise gives her blessing to “the clothes and all that other stuff.”
Mom gets how skinhead solidarity is a stabilizing influence on her son. What she can’t foresee is the nasty alterative gathering force to replace it. Enter Combo (Stephen Graham), an old mate of Woody’s and skinhead of a different stripe—the kind that twists into a swastika. Combo strikes a pose of belligerent, bigoted nationalism to mask his own insecurities, but his alpha-male diatribes score a direct hit on the feeble leadership structure of Woody’s group, exposing fissures and shattering allegiances. And it does a serious number on Shaun, still reeling from the aftermath of a political situation he vaguely attributes to foreign trouble. If Shaun found a father in Woody, Combo presents something better: a führer.
This Is England goes on to examine the psychology of fascism from two angles, at two stages of its development. The story of Shaun is a cautionary tale about the susceptibility of needy young men to the rigors of far-right ideology. Combo is a case study in the inevitable result: social and psychic violence. Meadows undermines this theme by reducing it all to daddy issues. Facile pop psychology is the real tragedy here, a double disappointment given the film’s smart take on pop culture. By ritualizing the values and vitality of pop culture, subcultures like the skinheads offer their own form of social organization. The success and failure of that process might have been the subject of This Is England, all rich raw materials slipping through fingers.