Set against the backdrop of the Falklands war, This is England gives us the story of a young boy whose seemingly normal coming-of-age is warped by two events: the death of his father in Thatcher's arguably meaningless Argentinian conflict, and the boy's unexpected embrace by a gaggle of youngish right-wingers who are alarmed by the presence of Pakistanis in their traditionally white neighborhoods. 11-year old Shaun (played by an exceptionally good young actor named Thomas Turgoose) is a boy who seemingly, even at his young, understands the value of finding normalcy and happiness and everyday life, and the process by which he's seduced into the skinhead circle is as layered and complex as it would be for a 20-year old character, let alone one who is young enough to be barely aware of sex. Shaun is hard to impress, in other words, and is not above telling anyone who treats him like a little boy to 'piss off' or worse. One of the funny things about this intimate little drama is that its cursing would make Scorsese blush.
The leader of the skinheads is Combo (Stephen Graham), a mercurial chap who alternates between speechifying about British pride like Ed Norton in American History X and trying to make honest efforts at connecting with his co-malcontents. He's far from the most pitiless brownshirt ever portrayed in the movies, but he does possesses mean reservoirs that the movie holds back from showing us for as long as it can. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess how he feels about the group's one Afro-Caribbean member, called Milky. His presence in the group isn't explained very well, but I suspect the idea is that director Shane Meadows is trying to make some kind of comment on the cross-pollination of skinhead culture and punk culture that existed in lower-middle class Britain at the time. One was perhaps marginally more accepting of a Milky, while the other was decidedly not, but an outsider might be hard-pressed to sort that difference immediately. Andrew Shim plays Milky as a guy who isn't surprised to face occasional racism, but plays past it.
Shaun's introduction to the gang, after a confrontation in an underpass, sees them shaving his head and pretty much inducting him with no fuss, but when Shaun returns to his working-class mother (Jo Hartley) with no hair, she marches him directly into the group's hangout to confront them in a stellar scene that takes the air out of the group's tough image. Combo hasn't shown up at this early point in the film -- he's just getting out of prison -- and the picture's dramatic arc will hinge on whether or not he's a gang leader in search of a gang or whether the other members still actually believe in his 'teachings.' Before Combo returns, the leader is presumed to be Woody (Joe Gilgun) who is mostly just an amiable cut-up and becomes a friend to Shaun without asking for any kind of loyalty in return. Another important member of the group is Smell (Rosamund Hanson) who tries to initiate a sexual relationship with the 11-year old Shaun, even though I would clock her age at somewhere around 25.
The longer the film goes on, the more Turgoose impresses with his acting, playing through challenging scenes as the group seemingly comes to the brink of splitting up. The script doesn't make Shaun so smart and prescient that we can feel the screenwriter talking through him, but finds for the character just the right age-appropriate balance of self-confidence and natural wits that remind you of the smart kids you knew when you were that age. They didn't have a lifetime of information to draw on like adults, but they had enough brain-power to make the right decision in most given situation. Every time he floats to us, the audience, a sense of Shaun's brightness, Meadows is heightening the drama and asking the question: how badly are these skinheads going to screw up this kid's future? How far down the wrong path are they going to take him? And we're constantly reminded that Shaun is already dealing with the death of his father and trying to compute who this Thatcher person is that everyone keeps trying to tell him is to blame.