By Alasdair Smith
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This is England

This article is over 17 years, 0 months old
Director Shane Meadows
Issue 314

This is England is the story of a small town skinhead gang in 1983 set against the backdrop of the Falklands War.

Shane Meadows, the director, was a school drop-out from Uttoxeter in the Midlands. He himself joined a skinhead gang and later flirted with the National Front (NF) as they in turn flirted with the “Oi” bands of the early 1980s. As with his previous films, This is England focuses on the nature of violence and bullying in society.

The film uses archive footage, such as a British soldier with his leg blown off at the knee being carried on a stretcher. Margaret Thatcher’s role in glorifying the war is clearly stated. Meadows wants us to see that when the state conducts violent wars abroad, we should not be surprised if violence rears its ugly head at home.

This theme also makes the film eerily contemporary. The demonisation of youth over guns, gangs and stabbings is a reflection of the deep-seated violence of state sponsored wars.

The most remarkable thing about the film is the directing and acting. The lead character Shaun is played by 13 year old Attention Deficit Disorder sufferer Thomas Turgoose. Prior to this film the closest he had got to acting was being rejected for the role of an extra in the school play. Turgoose gives an amazing performance as a boy who falls into a gang of older skinhead youths who befriend him.

This and a similar casting approach for the rest of the gang give the film a wonderful feeling of authenticity. There are no famous actors, no Hollywood stars. The scenes, houses and clothes are perfectly designed to recreate small town life.

Refreshingly this gang of youths is portrayed sympathetically. Their skinhead identity is more about music and fashion than anything else, as can be seen by the ethnic and gender diversity in the group. There is a hierarchy but also friendship, sensitivity and some solidarity. We can see that their anti-social behaviour is a reflection of their position in the class-ridden, unequal and hopeless society created by Thatcherism.

Combo, one of the gang members, returns home from prison with poisonous racist ideas which split the gang down the middle. The consequences are grim and for Shaun it becomes a defining moment in his life. The racism is frighteningly realistic. When he takes the gang to an NF meeting in a seedy backwater pub, the speaker arrives in a smart suit and a Jaguar.

One of the pivotal scenes is when Combo is rejected in a case of (unsurprisingly) unrequited love. We are asked to consider whether Combo’s racism is actually a product of his own ingrained insecurities and damaged childhood, or mental illness.

On the face of it this can seem like a cop-out. Racism and fascism are not products of mental illness but of deeply divided capitalist societies. Where people face uncertain futures and unrelenting poverty, they will seek explanations.

But the sad truth is that Nazis will relish this film – at least extracts from it. Already, one of the most hideous racist scenes has been posted on YouTube with the odd favourable comment by assorted Nazi scum.

The portrayal of racism and fascism is always difficult ground. Romper Stomper glorified neo-Nazi racism. American History X, although avowedly anti-racist, decontextualised fascism. This film does not repeat either of these mistakes. It is a serious film, albeit uncomfortable. It forces us to think about our pre-conceptions. But then isn’t that the point of art?

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