CATEGORIES Drama, Independent, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Toronto International Film Festival, Cinematical Indie, Toronto Film Festival, Reviews, CinematicalDuring the final scene of Shane Meadows' This Is England, I heard someone in the audience let out a violent, wrenching sob. The scene itself is actually quite lovely -- a young boy is standing in a field of green sea grass next to a rowboat, long-ago stranded by the tide; he's holding the St. George's Cross, the flag of England -- but it's infused with an almost inconceivable suffering and pain. Like most of Meadows' impressively accomplished film, the closing combines lush beauty -- the colors and compositions are often breathtaking -- with an incredible emotional punch, breaking our hearts with the inevitable tragedy of what we're seeing on screen.
Originally based on his own childhood, Meadows' screenplay underwent a metamorphosis after he met Thomas Turgoose, his young star. Combining his own childhood experiences with what Turgoose was going through nearly a quarter-century later, he revised his script and ended up with a heartfelt, tragic story of a boy desperate to belong. Set in the England of 1983, the movie is centered on Shaun, a 12-year-old boy whose father was recently killed in the Falkland Islands War. His pain over the loss of his dad is distancing him from his well-intentioned mother, and he doesn't fit in with the kids at school, all of whom are divided into distinct camps of fashion and ideology. Clad in bell-bottomed corduroys and a knitted sweater decorated with what look like squirrels, Shaun sticks out like a sore thumb. His inner agony gives him a hair trigger, and his explosive reactions immediately make him a target for the bullies at school -- they know they'll get a response, so they can hardly wait to wind him up.
Leaving school in misery after a horrible last day of term, Shaun stumbles upon a group of skinheads near his home. Though they try their hardest to look and act like hard men, they're really just kids themselves, and Shaun's misery earns him the pity of Woody (Joseph Gilgun), the group's eager, charismatic leader. Persuading the boy to sit with them for five minutes, Woody immediately charms Shaun by simply paying him a bit of attention and making him laugh. Despite the frustration of Gadget (Andrew Ellis), the group's designated whipping-boy, at the addition of a child whose status is above his own, Shaun quickly becomes part of the gang, complete with shaved head, rolled-up jeans and Doc Martens boots.
At first, Shaun's new life a great one. He's truly loved -- there's tremendous physical affection in Woody's gang, and no one is ashamed of giving the boy a hug, or rubbing his head when he's pleased them -- and the people around him seem to be entirely without the traits our casual assumptions often associate with skinheads, like violence and racism (indeed, one of their members, Milky, is Jamaican). Instead, the gang hangs together in search of the same things they're offering Shaun: Affection, comfort and family. The idyllic scene is thrown asunder, though, when Woody's old mentor Combo (Stephen Graham) gets out of prison and rejoins his old mates. In the three-and-a-half years they've been apart, Combo has adopted more stereotypical skinhead beliefs, primary among them a virulent racism disguised as an innocent opposition to those who arrive in the country and take jobs from "true Englishmen". Explaining his views in an impassioned, semi-impromptu speech, Combo wins over most of the men in Woody's gang -- as well as Shaun.
Apart from its sharp screenplay, This is England derives its power from a pair of extraordinary performances. As Shaun, Turgoose is all loss, ego and cocky desperation. His tiny, pinched mouth and close together eyes give his face a strikingly urgent expression, and despite appearing on film for the first time here, he's remarkably effective at conveying the wide range of emotions Shaun experiences. Opposite Turgoose is a deeply impressive Stephen Graham. As Combo, he calls to mind the young Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper, offering a similar charm, wrought with as much of sincerity as natural charisma, and possessed by the same barely contained desperation to be part of something important.
That Combo is committed to the loosely defined skinhead cause is never in doubt, but it's clearly not enough for him. He's being torn apart by conflicting emotions -- desire, fear, jealousy -- and has no idea how to handle his confusion. He can't show weakness before his "troops", and has no one else in the world he can talk to. As a result, Combo is trapped inside his own head, and from the moment we meet him we know violence -- his only form of expression and release -- is inevitable. When that explosion finally comes, it's undeniably bloody and horrific. But it's also tragic and useless, and the tears in Combo's eyes are as heartbreaking as those in Shaun's.