Saturday, November 17, 2007

This Is England- fear and loathing among the skinheads

It takes a lot of huevos to use a title that draws a line in the sand. Ornette Coleman dared to do that with his early albums and I could imagine a great road movie pinching its title from Yo La Tengo's "Detouring America." It's one thing to say that you're making a statement and another thing to actually back it up.

Writer/director Shane Meadow's semi-autobiographical film This is England actually does that. It received great reviews but only had a short run in the U.S. indie circuit. No doubt the film's downcast story didn't draw crowds- it's just out on a DVD now after a brief late summer run. That's a shame because it's a compelling portrait of adolescent life, gang mentality and the big bugaboo that we hate confronting, racism.

Along with the great performances (especially Thomas Turgoose and Stephen Graham as anti-heroes), the music here is used deftly. Along with Ludovico Einaudi's beautiful, melancholy score, there's plenty of rude-boy reggae from Toots and the Maytals plus appropriate bits of UK ska, skinhead music, poppy new wave and, in a pivotal, harrowing scene near the end, Percy Sledge "Dark End of the Street," which serves an interracial bridge though it ultimately becomes a gap.

The film starts with a news clip collage of UK riots and unrest. It's 1983 and Mrs. Thatcher has decided to send the royal navy to beat up Argentina over an island they've both laid claim to. One of the early casualties is the father of Shaun (Turgoose), the 11-year-old hero of the movie. He misses his dad badly and feels out of place at school, being picked on all the time. That changes when he runs into a gang of teen hoods led by Woody (Joe Gilgun, 2nd from the right in the picture below) who take him under their wing, feeling sorry for him. They shave his head and dress him up to fit in. They let him have an occasional drink and smoke and he even has a low-key sexual encounter with one of the girls. Though his mom doesn't know much about this other than his new haircut, she's just glad he's found some friends.

But things change when an old friend of Woody gets out of jail. When Combo (Graham) arrives, some of the gang are shaken and we know something's wrong. Later, he gives a moving speech to the group where he lays down his believes about his country and what's happened to it. He hates immigrants who've come to the UK and thing that they're owed a living. He blurts out some racist spew before catching himself, remembering that one of the gang has Jamaican blood (Milky, Andrew Shim, 2nd from the left in the picture below). He confronts him and asks "Are you Jamaican or are you English?" Milky shoots him back an angry glare, hesitates and then answers that he's English. Combo's proud to hear that and after an impassioned history lesson declares "This is England!" pointing to the group themselves, the ground they stand on and his own noggin.

Combo then goes off to rant about the Falklands war and what a pathetic waste it is. Shaun won't have any of that and lunges at Combo even though he could never take him in a fight. Combo's impressed by his passion and apologizes to him, saying that he still thinks the war is bullocks but that Shaun should fight back against the system so that his dad didn't die in vain. Combo then demands that the gang make a decision to stand by him and his fight or get lost. Most of them, including Woody, decide that this is going too far and leave but a handful stay, including Shaun. Combo sees himself in Shaun and promises to stick with him no matter what. They see themselves as uber-patriots, defending their own country and literally flying the flag.

At this point, you expect the usual bad boys comeuppance- there's gonna be a rumble, they'll come out on the wrong side of it and the hero will see how fucked up everything is. That does happen but to Meadow's credit, it doesn't happen the way we think it will- not with a huge confrontation with police or immigrants but an internal twisting of friendship and violence that makes it all the more personal and discomforting.

If things were a little more true to life in the movie, maybe we'd see that the skinheads and their more respectable National Front leaders carry on but the last scene where Shaun starts dead back at us is haunting enough- even if he's turned his back on some of his former friends, he's still got a lot of hate in him and his future's far from certain. And by association it seems, the same's true for the country that he and Combo love so much in their own twisted way.


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