(26/04/07) – The opening sequence of Shane Meadows’ new film This Is England , a montage of video clips from television footage of the 1980s (including the mandatory menacing image of Margaret Thatcher), is an acknowledgement that not only contemporary history, but also personal history, flow through the archives of television networks. The film is set in 1983 during a summer holiday when 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) has to kill free time in a dull English coastal town. Shaun lives with his mother and his father was killed at the Falklands war . Enter the skinheads, the subculture to which Meadows once belonged and the experience of which furnished him with the material for This Is England.
Skinheads are split into two groups: the good ones and bad ones. Shaun gets adopted by a gang of ‘good’ skinheads led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), which includes a black member, Milky (Andrew Shim) – not being racist is what essentially makes these skinheads ‘good’, as well as listening to ska music. Shaun gets shorn, a Ben Sherman shirt and at the end of a day out with the gang says he had the best time of his life.
It is at a party when Shaun has his first kiss with a New Romantic girl called Smell (Rosamund Hanson) that the bad skinheads boot in, led by Combo (Stephen Graham), fresh out of prison, full of hatred and nationalistic vitriol. When he finds out that Shaun’s father died at the Falklands, he sees an opportunity to indoctrinate the child into his racist ways, but after a spell of being tempted into this agressive lifestyle, a violent incident sees Shaun back on the ‘good’ path.
On the surface This is England is a coming-of-age story told in a style that echoes but not quite reaches the level of realism achieved by Ken Loach. The problem is that Meadow’s naturalistic style does not go beyond the mirroring of reality, and is devoid of any serious depth. The sense of familiarity the film creates for those who are British and who know British culture well is so intense that you could be excused to getting a feeling of deja vous. The meticulous devotion to English typology stems from a discreet type of patriotism often found in British cinema (illustrated in the last scene of the film), a kind of national self-obsession. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t make for universally resounding cinema.
Meadows surely has his moral intentions in the right place and his illustration of nationalism as the product of envy and ignorance rescues the issue from the sensationalism that the mainstream media narrates it. But the competence with which the film was made does not remove a feeling of blandness that lingers once the credits start to roll.
This Is England opens in the UK tomorrow, 27 April.