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July 30, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | July 30, 2007 |

This Is England, written and directed by Shane Meadows, is a curious apologetic look at skinhead culture in early 80s Thatcherite England; the film attempts to highlight the early, non-racist (actually influenced by black ska and reggae) identifications which blight the movement today while also offering the standard homily for said racism. The movie ends up being a kind of hybrid of similar films Made in Britain and American History X; it’s an engaging emotional portrait, but much too schematic to be compelling as a whole.

Shaun (Thomas Turgoose, a first-time, non-professional actor who turns in a surprisingly believable performance) is a typical 12-year-old adrift in the times; he lost his father in the Falklands War and suffers from a dearth of male paradigm until a group of friendly skinheads lead by Woody (Joe Gilgun) take him under their wing. The skinheads of Woody’s gang are a far cry from the Neo-Nazi associations we typically have; Meadows depicts them as a purely aesthetic movement (one of the members is even black). Woody’s lot is rowdy and hard-partying, but basically innocuous, and Shaun benefits from their association until a more familiar breed of skinhead, Combo (Stephen Graham), fresh from prison, shows up and causes the group to splinter. Combo, a character whose name and demeanor recall Russell Crowe’s Hando from Romper Stomper, offers a new take on skinhead culture that mixes white supremacy with the British nationalism of the time. His passionate, hateful screeds lure in Shaun, who finds in Combo a surrogate father who is likewise impressed with the puggish youth.

Meadows’ film cuts images of 1983 England: Fashion-drenched identities, rioting miners, and visuals from the war with the exposition in an attempt to hew pretty close to reality in this purportedly autobiographical tale. And in the spirit of Ken Loach, many of his actors are a mix of newcomers and non-professional locals, all of whom speak in a thick Midlands twang and feel sufficiently genuine; Meadows has no problem conveying authenticity. Unfortunately his writing isn’t quite up to the same task: His plot points are too forced and simplistic - he essentially has a hero who just needs a father figure and an antagonist who just needs to be loved; this sentimentality undermines much of his visual efforts.

This Is England succeeds in being a vividly emotional portrait of the anomie that often drives fashion and politics. And as far as subject matter goes, Meadows takes an in-depth and unusually gutsy stance on skinhead culture, attempting to divorce it from racism and the British National Party; this alone makes his movie an interesting one. As a writer and a filmmaker, however, he’s got a bit of his own growing up to do.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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