The gang-movie genre tends to follow a fairly predictable arc: Impressionable youth is seduced by gang life, enjoys the wild times and camaraderie that follow, then inevitably winds up disillusioned with the lifestyle. Whether it’s the mods and rockers of 1960s London in “Quadrophenia,” or the favela drug gangs of ’70s Rio di Janeiro in “City of God,” the cautionary nature of the tale rarely varies.
That’s true too of Shane Meadows’ “This Is England,” which zooms in on skinhead subculture in Britain’s Midlands in 1983.
Meadow’s film is a great gang movie simply due to its specifics: The filmmaker spent some time hanging with skins in his youth (he even had a bulldog tattoo done), and his film bears all the marks of real experience. But beyond that, Meadow’s film excels because it refuses to view gang culture in a vacuum. The director/writer draws provocative parallels between the personal and the political, showing how — as punk historian Jon Savage best put it — each era gets the teen nightmare it deserves.
Meadows grounds his film in its early-’80s era with a montage of images set to the rude-boy reggae of Toots and The Maytals: shots of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and clashes between striking unionists and the police remind us of an earlier era of economic turmoil. As England’s manufacturing industry collapsed, unemployment soared, and a quick and brutal war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands was jingoistically celebrated as a great national victory, skinheads — a lumpen-proletariat offshoot of punk dedicated to mayhem and dodgy rightwing politics — rose again.
The very last shot in Meadow’s montage shows a dead British soldier being carted off the battlefield in the Falklands, the human cost of feel-good jingoism. He then cuts directly to a shot of a young boy’s room, pulling in close on the photo of his soldier dad. Right here Meadows establishes two things: The film will be about loss, and it will be about father figures.
We meet the boy, doughy 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), at school where he gets in a fight with an older boy who teases him about his hippie-looking flares. Shaun immediately launches himself at the bully but winds up getting caned by the principal for fighting. The flares were a present from his father, who was killed in the Falklands, and Shaun is obviously still torn-up inside.
On his way home from school, Shaun is again teased, but then befriended by a group of skinheads, who recognize a fellow outsider in him. Woody (Joe Gilgun), an older teen and the leader of the gang, is surprisingly friendly and sympathetic to Shaun, even upbraiding the portly Gadget (Andrew Ellis) when he picks on the younger boy. Soon Shaun is shaving his head and wearing suspenders and Doc Martens, much to the distress of his frizzy-haired hippie-ish mother, Cynth (Jo Hartley). When she confronts Woody and his girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure), though, they’re both apologetic, and Cynth is reassured her son is in good hands.
Meadows goes out of his way to show that not all skins were racist nutters, and Woody’s crew is a diverse group, including a black skin, Milky (Andrew Shim), and Strawberry Switchblade-clone Smell (Rosamund Hanson), who Shaun takes a fancy to. All is good harmless fun — including a bit of property vandalism — until Woody’s friend Combo (Stephen Graham) turns up one day, fresh out of prison and a convert to the white-power politics of the National Front. Combo is the sort of skin who proves the cliche — menacing, seething with hate for minorities and dangerously unstable.
Yet in Graham’s hands, he’s also something more than that. He makes Combo a charismatic psycho, one who preys upon loyalty and friendship to force his friends to join him in race war. He can throw around racial epithets, then off-foot the gang by apologizing to Milky and upbraiding the rest of the gang for not standing up for him. Only Shaun has the courage to confront Combo, which makes Combo that much more determined to win this little guy’s soul. When Woody splits with half the gang, Shaun is one who stays to follow Combo. Soon he’s involved in racist attacks on Pakistani shopkeepers and school kids.
Graham gives a masterful performance, and you can literally feel the threat of violence hanging in the air, like the stale smell of spilled beer, every time he enters the room. Graham shows the hurt that’s inside this guy, which almost makes him sympathetic, except that you know he’s going to release that rage on someone else, with fatal consequences. Combo certainly rings true when I recall the skins I knew back in my punk days; rowdy, but all right guys when sober, you just had to get out of the way quickly when they got drunk.
“This Is England” shows how subcultures, just like nations, fall prey to the politics of us vs. them. Woody’s inclusive, benign leadership of the tribe is supplanted by Combo’s visions of race war and a white England. Shaun, just looking for some mates and a good time, is forced to sort it all out, and the film builds to a poignant, unforgettable conclusion.