So much is written about British home grown cinema and its current state. It currently appears that two styles of films are being made and released widely; Guy Ritchie style gangster films that follow the path of ever diminishing returns and usually keep Danny Dyer’s ludicrous acting career afloat, or low-rent American Pie style ‘gross out’ films such as ‘I Want Candy’, which make the American precursors to these look like a golden age of comedy. So where can cinema that reflects Britain as it truly is be found? The films of Shane Meadows, as well as Pawel Pawlikowski, wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Certainly, these are the two most interesting British directors currently making films. Their films are inspired by the more social realist and ‘kitchen sink’ approaches of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but they’re also modern, nod partly to American cinema, and are partly autobiographical.
‘This is England’ is Meadows’ most autobiographical and mature work to date, and describes Meadows’ own childhood flirtation with skinhead gangs, both in their purist and racist forms. The young protagonist Shaun is based on the director, whose dad has just died in the Falklands, and is raised alone by his mother. Bullied by older boys at school, he falls in with a crowd of teenage skinhead delinquents who are more or less harmless and provide both a respite to the victimisation he feels at school and also a mentoring and parental support. Shaun shaves his hair and joins the gang in destroying derelict houses, but the future of this gang all changes when Combo, a friend of Woody, the leader of the gang, returns from jail. We learn that Woody was somehow involved in Combo’s time in prison – perhaps taking the full rap for something.
Combo is now a racist, speaking the vile language of the National Front, even in front of the gang’s one black member, Milky. The gang then splits; some staying with Woody, others joining Combo’s more violent and prejudiced outfit. Crucially, Shaun sides with Combo, who he sees almost as a surrogate father. Combo’s gang attends National Front rallies, whose leadership seem like thugs in suits, and call for people to reclaim their country, though this manifests itself in robbing Asian shopkeepers and intimidating Asian children.
Combo is a very complex creation indeed, pent up with hatred and aggression, and like a time-bomb waiting to go off. We want to understand where this frustration comes from, though Meadows is reluctant to provide simple answers. He is in love with Lol, Woody’s girlfriend, with whom he had a one night stand which she wants to forget, and she rejects him once more. Combo’s explosion of violence comes not against Woody, but against Milky. It seems to be born out of his lack of something; a lack of family or sense of belonging, both of which Milky has in abundance and takes pride in. This is more than Combo can handle. How can someone whose roots are not English enjoy much more than he does in his own country? I should warn that this attack is sustained and brutal, but it is right that it should be so. This part is based on an incident that really occurred, and Meadows claims it is this that really woke him up to what his gang were truly capable of, which he then left.
Some have argued that Meadows is too ambivalent and not condemning enough of the skinhead movement that became overtaken by a racist element in the early 1980s. For the film to have credibility though, Meadows has to show why they might be attractive for both him and others, rather than just portray them as cartoonish thugs. The members of these gangs, like Combo, are missing something which either the gang mentality or ideology can compensate for. Meadows draws parallels between these incidents and the war in the Falklands with a montage of victorious British soldiers and outnumbered, under-equipped, and defeated Argentinean teenagers. It hardly seemed a fair or just fight. Shaun’s final rejection of country and the insidious characteristics of national pride are shown when he throws the Union flag given to him by his father into the sea.
Meadows’ period detail is accurate, though there is the odd anachronism, such as footage of the miners’ strike, which had yet to start when the film was set in 1983. An opening montage of Thatcher, Knight Rider and Roland Rat reinforces this, and provides context. Meadows captures a divisive time; when the policies of the Thatcher governments decimated working class communities, and many looked for convenient and defenceless scapegoats (immigrant communities). ‘This is England’ is a powerful rights of passage film, and unfortunately the language and violence (which could not have been softened for fear of completely undermining the film) ensures that the audience it really ought to reach, might not get to see it, which is a shame as it has definite educational value. Now why is public money being spent on the films I mentioned in my opening paragraph, instead of more films like this?