Shane Meadows' This is England: A Psychoanalytical Review
After years of feeling that English cinema is second-rate compared with that of America or Europe, we are now in an era where we can hold our own. Over the last decade English film-making has gathered momentum, establishing a niche position within the world of indie film. With a unique combination of gritty realism, dry humour, and narratives that have a lot to say but little to preach, English filmmakers have developed a style that reflects the unspoken mentalities of our masses and the neglected experiences of everyday English life. When it comes to this type of dramedy, however, nobody mans the helm as confidently and as courageously as Shane Meadows in his sixth film, the ironically-named This is England.
Set in eighties England, this semi-autobiographical film describes the coming-of-age of Shaun (Thomas Turgoose, making his screen debut), a twelve-year-old boy at that awkward stage where one desires autonomy but can't quite reach full independence, and rebellion masks a need for security and a sense of family belonging. Shaun's father has recently died in the Falklands war, his mother has little money and no drive to improve their lives, and Shaun is lonely, bullied at school for wearing out-of-date and out-size clothes. All in all, the summer of '83 seems to promise little.
One day, however, a local skinhead gang takes him under its wing. It includes, among others, the dryly charismatic Woody (Joe Gilgun), the engaging Smell (Rosamund Hanson), and the always cheerful and cool Milky (Andrew Shim), an English-born Jamaican. In this motley crew of generous-minded lost souls, Shaun finds a new family who, with their rebellious lifestyles, playful vandalism, and love of ska music and skinhead fashion, keep the Spirit of '69 alive; that is, until the older and bulldoggish Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from a three-year-stint in prison. Soon the group's little games take on a brutal reality, ideologies are debated, lines are drawn, and a summer of joyous belonging turns into a nightmare of innocence lost.
In this film, Meadows seeks to explore the irony of skinhead culture: skins' combination of a loyal attachment to ska (a form of Jamaican reggae) with a blind hatred of foreigners. To bring out this contrast, the narrative is split into two distinct halves, the first depicting life before Combo's arrival, and the second showing the events that follow it. However, we cannot completely enter into the playful innocence of the first half, because of an irresistible warning embedded within the narrative that states 'thou shalt not enjoy.' This is a rare sensation in the cinematic experience, of which the aim is often to provide a cathartic safety valve for feelings of aggression. Most other violent films, such as those of Stanley Kubrick, Guy Ritchie, or Nick Love, portray a series of violent events which the audience nevertheless finds entertaining, and which lead up to a finale in which both the characters and the audience reassess their moralities. By contrast, Meadow sets up the moral conclusions of his film almost before it really begins, and this injunction against enjoyment is not only aimed at us but is at the very core of the characters (even before Combo's arrival); they carry this form of 'stress' with them throughout the entire story. This is how Meadows exploits the irony of the skinhead culture, by adding a feeling of impending doom even as the characters play. Paradoxically, it seems to me that it is this lack of enjoyment that makes the film so riveting, for it catches the viewer in a unique space between the suspense of the unknown and the clichés of dramatic irony.
Consequently, I do not agree with recent reviews that criticise the predictability of the film's plot. Meadows is not aiming at an unexpected climax that breaks the viewer's enjoyment, but deliberately weaves the ending throughout the narrative. The ending becomes instrumentally clear the moment Shaun meets Combo. Rather than a feeling of predictability, there is a strange sense of inevitability without certainty, a hope that when the disaster finally begins, Meadows will show mercy to his characters. It is Combo who uncannily haunts the film's first part, since he is, for Meadows, the embodiment of this contradiction in skinhead culture. Before he appears at all, he can be sensed in every scene: the imperative not to enjoy emanates from him, and he takes this command into the second part of the narrative. In Combo, Meadows has at his disposal the very archetype through which to represent the moment when skinhead culture transformed itself into a brutally racist voice for the National Front.
This lack of enjoyment or even the possibility of it in fact explains Combo's racism, as he attempts to seek and remove that which causes his sense of loss and desperation, trying to 'cleanse his horizon' by attacking the world around him. Here is the sad psychological truth that the film depicts: the lack of enjoyment in the characters is the reason for their hatred. We do not hate others because we feel that we are superior or that they are simply different. We hate people because we suspect that they enjoy life more than us, and that they must be responsible for our lack of happiness. This is what is at the heart of Combo's question: who has taken away my enjoyment? This question ripples throughout the film in various allegorical forms, from the loss of fathers in an absurd war fought by imperialist governments who care nothing for their people, to unemployment and poverty, which feed Combo's belief that foreigners steal enjoyment from those who deserve it. For Meadows, therefore, racism does not emerge from the void, rather it is the void. Combo's all-consuming territoriality, which derives from his unhappiness, expresses itself not only in racism in particular, but in misanthropy in general; nobody around him is safe from his demand that 'thou shalt not enjoy,' not Shaun, whose innocence must be taken, not Combo's friends who live in ignorance, and certainly not Milky, whose large healthy family are content, which, for Combo, must be because of their Jamaican (i.e. foreign) roots. It is this despairing demand of Combo's that propels the narrative, leading into the tragic yet inevitable climactic showdown.
Shane Meadows brilliantly recreates the setting for this complex character-based period drama. With his intimate knowledge of neglected English landscapes, he succeeds in capturing the grey, drab, pebble-dashed, council estate milieu of the eighties urban working class. His attention to period detail is obsessive, from the fashion, including poodle perms, Ben Sherman button-down shirts and Doc Martens boots, to the popular culture: the film's very impressive and nostalgic opening sequence includes a channel-hop montage, shifting between images of Roland Rat, the Royal Wedding, Knight Rider, space invaders and the Rubik cube, all cut and played over a vintage ska track by Toots and the Maytals, instantly transporting us to Shaun's world.
The musical score adds to the narrative's feeling of inevitable doom, avoiding overuse of the expected aggressive skinhead rock anthems, and relying instead on the sad slow instrumentals that we usually associate with long hours of silent contemplation. This is entirely appropriate, given that the film is, in fact, one long moral reflection, which, along with the fast-paced editing, adds to the impression of a memory flashback.
The performances are superb all round and help to anchor Meadows' complex psychological story. Stephen Graham has made a career out of playing thugs (Gangs of New York, Snatch) but under Meadows' direction he brings out an incredibly raw performance, depicting someone on the edge of insanity with tremendous despair and soul. Newcomer Thomas Turgoose is the core of the picture, acting with a deep seriousness that poignantly conveys Shaun's premature adulthood, thrust upon him before he has a chance to enjoy growing up.
What makes the film so touching is that, as a semi-autobiographical account, the character of Combo paradoxically provides the way for Meadows to safeguard his own innocence. The narration becomes reduced to a single question: in the midst of a fatherless culture, where I grew up under the wings of flawed men, what chance did my innocence have? This acknowledged helplessness preserves both Meadows' innocence, and that of the film.
In This is England, Meadows provides his answer to the riddle of what England is. His answer is not that the various England underground cultures form the 'real' England, nor is he drawing a connection between English culture and the Falklands war. Rather, he seeks to reveal the horror that derives from the most beautiful and unattainable part of the English ideal: despairing people like Combo strive after it, only to experience failure, which adds to their hopelessness and hatred of others. Rather than arguing that the horror depicted by the film is a result of the loss of the English ideal, or that the English ideal is the horror, Meadows shows that it is in Combo's quest for the ideal that the horror originates.--Imran Javaid Butt