Review of Award-winning British Film, This Is England
the writing herein is dense and therefore meant to be read more than once
olitics and Film, Week 8 Essay Review #3
REVIEW OF DIRECTOR SHANE MEADOWS' FILM, THIS IS ENGLAND, MEADOWS, 2006
As our director “likes misfits” and stories about them, writes journalist Young, and has lived as a skinhead in his own influence-impressing youth, having also been surrounded “by strange and colorful people,” adds Young – and being “proud of his working class roots” - in This Is England Meadows takes the opportunity to “sketch out his interests and ethics with clarity and precision” [Dargis]. As you will see below and in this piece's conclusion, that is why this movie should be watched by many kinds of young people – once of-age and ready for a jolt, anyway - in order to imbue very important lessons and images about life. The newspaper writings of Dargis, Harvey, Morales, Nameless, and Young [see bibliography] in the New York Times, The Telegraph, and the London Evening Standard intimately inform the following piece.
Meadows' 2006 movie, This Is England, begins with the 12-year old protagonist, Shaun, going to school. His family is poor, especially because his father has died in a war. Shaun is deeply traumatized and mentally sick from it, and also from the distance of his mother from him, and her failing to figure out how to make Shaun well again. He gets in schoolground fights almost right away. Then on his way home one day, a troop of teenage skinheads reaches out and ultimately incorporates him into their small group. They are concerned with violence, alternate-lifestyle beliefs, and rebellion against authority of many kinds. Shaun jumps on the opportunity to have what his character would very much call “fun” when he participates in “riotous comic scenes” [Harvey] and serious property destruction. Next, an older skinhead, Combo, who is an authority or even inspiration to this whole younger group, effectively adopts Shaun, whose father-like influence on the youngster, combined with the fun Shaun has with the original skinheads, enables him to begin healing. Finally, at the ending, Shaun leaves the group as well as the older member, Combo, rejoins his mother, and is somehow then healed in the most moving way. This student-writer believes this is a four-star film.
Having been poor in his youth, effected in a similar way to Shaun's character by bad circumstances, like the suicide of a good friend early in life, the director makes his genius film “deeply autobiographical” [Nameless, Dateless; see bibliography]. Meadows was also deeply effected by a skinhead phase from his youth, along with appreciation later in life for that kind of experience, a phenomenon that is all about the “joy of finding your tribe and being accepted” where a youngster can “find and be himself” [Dargis]. The journalist Dargis writes with resonance that this extremely intense film has a “throbbing beat,” which is discovered on and off throughout. Dargis also writes that the skinhead and protagonist group of misfits are involved in drugs, violence and even fascism, as discovered during the movie's middle, with a meeting of the “National Front” where Shaun and the other original skinheads are in attendance [Nameless]. In Dargis opinion, because of characteristics of the film like Shaun healing at the end and Combo's partially positive influence on the young Shaun, he also writes that despite the profound psychic violence therein, the movie “has heart” is “soulful” and even “modest.” That is, the inescapable terrible political nature of: a background in the lower-middle class in Shaun, of the ways of the skinheads, and of the included scenes of their membership in a fascist group make this modesty a paradox; that is, the larger skinhead group being intensely involved in all kinds of drugs, and even a shocking murder at the end – even though the film is like that, Meadows recalls his words during an interview that, “I'm just not politically driven” [Harvey]. This comes as a surprise to the movie's viewers. Dargis' additional words that the movie is “modest” becomes clear to the audience at the very touching ending that this is true, but just in a very uncanny, strange way, and becomes clear also because of the absence of directly political content, even by the National Front.
Surprising, too, is the severity of the effect on Shaun of his father's death and of his classmates’ abuse of him in their bullying. The destructive violence, the shocking drug use, and the appearance of the worst of involvement in the occult, among some of the skinheads, always is the type of thing that is surprising to this student-writer. Also, at some point in the film's early-middle phase, the leaving of Shaun with the skinheads perpetrated by his own mother, so that he is effectively without her presence around him at all, this is done in the most remarkable, even strategic way, cause for more surprise. She seems to sense that there is something important and good about providing Shaun with this extreme experience.
Additionally, one of the several most unpleasant moments in this story of Shaun is when the original skinhead group joins up with Combo and other much older members at the meeting of bad propaganda. At this point, in agreement with this group of crazy older people, the original group joins up with them by means of their fulfillment of their requests for all kinds of crime. On a positive note, however, having joined up with the other young members early on, Shaun is profoundly delighted by their destructive property abuse, using implements like sledgehammers to smash every part and feature of an apartment. Being entirely other than the multi-cultural intimidating image of anyone in this kind of group, and being another positive surprise is when Combo actually effects the beginning, continuation, and, indirectly, the completion of Shaun's healing. These are two examples of the very palpable goodness in many of the younger skinhead group, and even a couple of the others.
Undoubtedly, while Combo is often delighted with the behavior of young Shaun, including his presence at the fascist meeting, including his participation in skinhead partying, the use of drugs, and the shaving of his head and getting tattooed as part of his initiation - that is, Combo, also being young [in his late-twenties or slightly older] behaves as if there is more to himself, as if there is something else under the surface of his mind that affects his outrageous character and behavior. This film being set in post-Falklands War years, when unemployment, rage on the part of the British citizens, and strong nationalism affected Great Britain, Combo appears to have also been poor and without proper parenting and authority in his youth.
One of the things he does along these lines during the course of this story is to cry when one of the female skinheads and he are alone together in a car, confessing his having been in love with her and having thought during his prior time in prison - “only of you,” he says to her, with tears. And a prison term is of course a very influential shaping and relevance to his behavior in this story and is partially why he is tattoed, with a shaven head, angry, violent, having of at least semi-twisted beliefs, and just compelled in general to do live as completely a skinhead. Another telling behavior of Combo occurs at a small party when he cries passionately at the also-younger and culturally black-Jamaican skinhead, Milky, when the latter tells him in the most passionate way all about the wonderfulness of having and spending holidays and other occasions with a very big, loving family. But the biggest shock of the entire movie is what comes next: Combo totally loses it on Milky, Shaun being present, and goes crazy, violently beating and killing Milky, who is depicted as just such a good man. Shaun freaks out like any young child would.
At this, of course, one paradox is that the viewer of this ultimately, but only largely, touching movie finds that Shaun and he carry the very same trauma. Combo's fatherly decision to somehow adopt Shaun and his also fatherly effect on young Shaun, motivating the child “to start to mend” as writer Dargis puts it, also makes Combo's internal conflict clear to the audience. Being outwardly fascist, the audience now understands that despite his instability, anger, and violence, that Combo must be carrying deep goodness inside him, as well as a confusion as to how to live that he hides even to himself. He is trying to find real peace of mind and happiness, perhaps of the type that is compatible with some of his alternative characteristics and habits. That is, or thus also, despite his violence, his character yet still seems to know that there are specific things Shaun needs to experience in order to properly heal, grow up while healthy and well, and begin a good quality life.
As for a closer look at Shaun's character, then, nearly the same circumstances, coming partially from the cultural and political problems occurring in Britain after the Falklands War, affect him almost as do those affecting Combo. He starts the story being poor, just as “there were no middle-class skinheads” [Nameless] in Britain at the time. Then the severe “schoolground bullying and [the] isolation” from nurturing authorities that Shaun undergoes, it echoes the undoubtedly abusive and internally destructive nature of Combo's time in jail. Then, once Shaun has begun to hang out with the original, but younger, and much less serious group of skinheads, but before his ensuing “initiation ceremon[ies]” [Dargis], physically and psychically violent, both, as described above, at this time, just like Combo's earlier phases of growing up, Shaun also decides to leave the site and source of much of his suffering and bitterness behind. He leaves school just like his mother left him. Shaun's audience sees here and when he meets Combo for the first time, that he is deeply conflicted, just as his mother somehow and remarkably figures out early on. She also has figured out that some time with these misfits is exactly the kind of change he is so badly needing.
Other significant things about these two characters start at the beginning with Shaun's apparently, and also surprisingly internally unhindered, physically violent reaction to some of the bullying that is inflicted on him by many of his schoolmates. Of course these behaviors are characteristic of the age-group, but are still strange to this student-writer. Should not twelve-year-olds be foreign to violence, curse words, and bad treatment of their peers? Should not they have an exploratory, even sweet way about them? Perhaps not, it being that at twelve they have only just entered middle school, or, that is, junior-high school, which should be approximately when these things begin. Or, perhaps especially families where there are older and/or younger children, with one's age compared to another’s, perhaps especially these introduce this kind of negativity to kids under twelve-years old – negativity that sometimes is not so negative, but to be expected as part of growing up. And, afterward, the tendency toward this kind of negativity is then fully adopted by the now-skinhead Shaun, just in the skinheads way and habit of “giddy anarchy” [Dargis].
Now, while psychic and physical violence abound and dominate in this movie, there “is [still] a lot of joy and fun of...people getting on with their [everyday] lives,” writes Morales. And this is present in the forms of: the moments between the violence, those of the often pleasant, nice score, and even more deeply enjoyable music-listening within, also by way of Shaun's mother hanging out in their home smoking while talking with her son, also by way of ordinary joking around and conversation - for example the ridiculous garb some of the original protagonists don between parties and wreaking havoc, such as scuba goggles or raccoon skin hats - or, lastly, also by way of the characters going to the store. In this way, this “colourful riot of youth tribes in the early Eighties” [Nameless], which is when our story is set, provides rest for the otherwise perhaps somewhat or even sometimes severely stressed out audience, which so much makes the film alike to Film Noir's psychoactive negativity. It even becomes obvious because of this aspect of Meadows' unique work that our director in fact has “a real insight into suburbia in Britain” [Morales].
Further, despite that this movie “is distinctly English” [Nameless], and while authority in Britain is distinctly similar to the way it is in America – with violent tribes of alternative lifestyles and beliefs being strong in their influence on the culture, with teachers disciplining their child students, with parents having influence, and with the members, or citizens, of stronger personalities being forward in what ends up constituting leadership. While these first comments constitute facts, authority is different, too, in Britain than it is elsewhere, in that during what really constitutes longer moments of partying, violence, hanging out, meetings of substance about the skinhead way with members present, and this film's in-between moments, as described – for these reasons, that is, it looks to be that long periods of time spent together by our protagonist skinheads go totally without the presence of police or military that enforce the laws the tribe breaks. In America, it seems to this viewer that police or the like would immediately or fast show up at the site of law-breaking and dictate or force orders, wishes, and requests. Hence: the conclusion that perhaps drug or violence users are left alone by law-enforcers in Britain as they are in Colombia, South America, for instance, for the sake of the safety and even the very lives of the enforcers. However, the absence of this one kind of authority could possibly only constitute part of the movie and not reflect reality in Great Britain.
For Combo's part, the treatment of authority is in ignoring and leaving school and his parents, when he was young, ignoring laws against violence and drugs as well as police and military, in ignoring shop-owners that try to stop thieves, in abusing his own skinhead friends and even children – like when he awfully murders Milky – ignoring, that is, the light side of his own culture. But whereas Combo is extremely violent, Shaun doesn't much use drugs or abuse violence, the latter being something he does only in his property destruction - and neither does he listen much to his mother or wish to honor his schoolteachers, like when after a fight at the school playground, even when the teachers take him away into their office to hit him with a stick as discipline. His described initiation constitutes a unique brand of authority abuse, as well.
In the end and on the whole, though, especially during reflection by the audience - during the moments after seeing the amazing final scene - This Is England, viewed through glasses of a just bit of seriousness and perhaps even optimism - ends up a jolting, but very touching and heart-warming movie. While it has been established that its disturbing nature and stylistic character, in long, awful scenes of every category of psychic violence, for instance, is comparable to Film Noir, this student-writer would say that it is also just like “Kitchen Sink Realism” and Cinema Verite because it displays stories of multiple skinhead characters, and relevant others, that actually play out in real life in Britain. That is, Dargis writes that this is a story that “could take place today [not 25 years ago] in any American city.” The sheer power of its content is played out: in the love, understanding, and compassion of Combo for Shaun, in Shaun's having great fun, at last, in Shaun's return to his mother at the end, in the surprisingly distinctly good, though still hybrid nature of the original skinheads, including the passion of Milky – and especially in the final scene of Shaun leaving the skinheads behind in the most adult and wonderful way – that is, in at long last being fully healed and momentarily grown up, finally living in meaningful moments of a profound bliss of life. The presence of these scenes is why the brilliant Shane Meadows’ This is England won the British Film Award. That is, the film is worthy at times, in re-watching it, of tears of joy because of its ending, when Shaun throws the symbol and gift of Combo's prior loyalty to him, a special flag, into the muddy ocean at the beach and walks away, deeply satisfied and very obviously healed and well again. Indeed, may our children learn from this film.
Bibliography of Online, Including Two British Newspapers:
New York Times , “In Thatcher's Britain, a Fellowship of the Skins”: Manohla Dargis, 2007.
The Telegraph, “This Is England: Shane Meadows on His Era-defining Drama”: Chris Harvey, [dateless].
New York Times, “A Western Set Far from the West”: Juan Morales, 2003.
London Evening Standard, “The Director Who Puts Himself in the Frame; the Director, Shane Meadows Has Chronicled His Own Life and Times on Film for a Decade; but Will This Is England, About a Schoolboy Skinhead Be the Final Chapter?”: Nameless, 2007.
New York Times, “Failing at Crime, and Turning to Film”: Victoria Young, 1998.