For those of us who weren't coming of age in 1983 Grimsby, England, writer-director Shane Meadows (Twenty Four Seven) does a bang up job of setting the scene in his wrenching, partly autobiographical drama This Is England. On his way to revivifying skinhead culture, as seen through the eyes of a troubled twelve year-old, Meadows considers the greater context of political and social unrest.
As did Kenneth Branagh's Peter's Friends, This is England immediately transports us back to the '80s with a montage (set to Toots And the Maytals' "54 46 Was My Number"). As the story continues, TVs and radios blare history (like Thatcher mocking the 1983 Labour Manifesto: "They think it's attractive to offer to the young a future wholly controlled by the operation of the Socialist state") while the working class on the ground live paycheck to paycheck and try to figure somewhere to put their feelings of parental and governmental abandonment.
A gloomy kid whose father recently died in the Falklands, Shaun (sad-eyed Thomas Turgoose) tries to keep to himself to avoid daily bullying. When friendly skinhead Woody (Joe Gilgun) offers him friendship and, better yet, membership in a gang, Shaun is over the moon. With his new friends, Shaun learns to bully rather than be bullied (an unfortunately common reaction, in discovering newfound power). Already an incongruous sight, Shaun engages in a humorous relationship with an older woman in his new social circle: Smell (Rosamund Hanson).
Circumstances lead Shaun to abandon the relatively harmless skinheads for the company of Combo (Stephen Graham), an ex-con with a chip on each shoulder and a burgeoning gang of hardcore fascists. When Combo shows up in full recruitment mode, Meadows makes his own valuable opportunity to distinguish one brand of skinheads (hooligans, perhaps, but more fashion-conscious music lovers than drains on the community) from another (recklessly angry xenophobes). The former initiates Shaun by shaving his head and dressing him up as a junior member; the latter initiates him with scarification.
The story's drama emerges with those caught in between. Gung-ho Pukey (Jack O'Connell) likes what he hears when Combo delivers his own manifesto of England for the English; so does Shaun, when Combo decries the bastards who sent the boy's father to his death. With Combo insisting, "We're not racists. We're realists" and apologizing for a racist slight, even a black lad ironically dubbed Milky (Andrew Shim) won't rule out joining Combo's crew. Unfortunately this intriguing thread never comes into focus, as Milky remains a cipher. Easygoing though he is, why does he put up with Combo to the degree that he does? Many psychological reasons are possible, but the true answer is that his continued presence proves necessary for the plot.
When cast, Turgoose himself was an wild child from a broken home (divorce), and the film is dedicated to Turgoose's mother Sharon, who passed away not long after production wrapped. Happily, Turgoose is finding healing and hope in his new career, but he brings to This is England palpably authentic impotent anger, and euphoria at acceptance. Meadows' recollections of his own youth likewise lend a terrible immediacy to an unusually potent coming-of-age story.