July, 1983. Schools out and 12 year-old Shaun (Turgoose) falls in with an amiable gang of skinheads and mods. Then National Front nut Combo (Graham) arrives on the scene, and being a little skinhead suddenly becomes far more than a fashion statement...
Opening with a channel-hop montage that flips between images of Roland Rat, Knight Rider and one-time aerobics doyenne the Green Goddess, the first few seconds of This Is England suggest that Shane Meadows’ latest is just another exercise in first-base ’80s nostalgia and cultural-reference cheapshots. But then the hopper’s finger rests briefly at some distressing footage from the Falklands War before settling on shots of National Front marches and sneering skinheads. This isn’t a movie about nostalgia, Meadows makes clear. This is the ’80s as painful memory.
It's an era of pebble-dashed terraces, mushy-pea-green woodchip wallpaper and illiterate racist graffiti. Much like the ’80s we saw in Alan Clarke’s pugilistic social-realist cinema, and Meadows’ latest certainly owes something to Clarke’s Made In Britain. But, crucially, it owes more to Meadows’ childhood — specifically one life-changing event — and it’s this that powers This Is England’s bruising emotional impact.
If it has one weakness, it’s that the same event has influenced Meadows’ previous work; if you’ve seen the curiously neglected A Room For Romeo Brass or the chilling Dead Man’s Shoes, you’ll quickly sense where This Is England is going way before Meadows’ deft tweaking of the tension provides its own signpost. His work is preoccupied by weak-centred bullies — idiosyncratically charismatic personalities who elbow their way into his protagonists’ lives under the cover of friendship and unsettle the status quo; and This Is England utterly conforms to the blueprint.
Yet such predictability is superseded by the sheer quality of the performances. As thin-lipped, bulldoggish boot-boy Combo, Stephen Graham (Snatch, Gangs Of New York) joins Tim Roth and Russell Crowe as actors who’ve turned what should be purely hateable racist thugs into complex signature performances. Then there’s newcomer Thomas Turgoose, who, through intense workshopping, has moulded the character of Shaun through as much his own experience as Meadows’. Pinch-faced and awkward but brimming with prepubescent swagger, he’s the film’s shining core and we’ll be amazed if you see a better, more naturalistic child performance this year.
Deeply impressive, as both a recreation of 80s working-class England and an intimate tale of one childhoods brutal end.