Monday, November 06, 2006
Review: This is England
Shane Meadows could be British cinema’s best-kept secret — a poet of pratting about, lippy banter, and boys doing what they’re best at, which is being hopeless. For a good 45 minutes, This is England — Meadows’s first attempt at a period piece, and certainly his most ambitious movie to date — seems such safe ground for this talented dosser that we’re lulled into a false sense of security: the movie’s joshing ensemble and bang-on Thatcher-era detail are confidently interwoven, the young actor Thomas Turgoose is a tremendously natural and cheeky find as the 11-year-old adopted as a mascot by a gang of skinheads, and the Falklands war is sensibly submerged by way of backdrop to the point where more tellies are tuned into the vintage ITV quiz show Blockbusters than the tank-and-plane-filled news broadcasts. (Sadly, adorable host Bob Holness is only heard, not seen.)
If we have some inkling that the film’s going to tip over into something darker, it could be that we’ve seen Meadows’s marvellous A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), still his best feature to date, and one which the debuting Paddy Considine practically broke in half with an unanticipated and terrifyingly casual outburst of mid-movie sociopathy. This is England wants to make a similar shift, and also to use a single intervening personality to get us there, which is to say from laddish comedy to race-baiting melodrama. That person is Combo (Stephen Graham), recently paroled and a skinhead with issues, unlike the gregarious and welcoming Woody (Joseph Gilgun), the chubby, put-upon Gadget (Andrew Ellis), his ironically-named West Indian comrade Milky (Andrew Shim) and the rest of the gang.
From Combo’s arrival onwards, Meadows’s previously sure direction starts to falter in small but damaging ways, and the more the picture strains for controversy and impact, the less it ends up having. Two big transitional scenes misfire, back to back — first an accidentally soothing blanket of string score, welling up on top of one of Combo’s screeds, fails to highlight the tensions within the group and instead all but papers over them, uniting the rest of the gang and ourselves in a sort of head-shaking compact of awkward awareness. This mistake carries over into the next, crucial Combo scene and contrives to disable his rhetoric so fundamentally we can’t believe anyone, let alone Turgoose’s previously hard-to-kid Shaun, is actually talked round.
The moment the appalled Woody and pals leave the scene, there’s a dismaying sense that Meadows has transferred all his eggs to the wrong basket, and the absence of the decent and appealing Gilgun from pretty much the whole of the rest of the movie is painfully felt. We get big sequence after big sequence from here on, starting with a nationalists’ convention addressed by Meadows regular Frank Harper in the manner of a village butcher in his Sunday best, and then numerous confrontations between Combo and his cohorts, but big sequences aren’t really Meadows’s forte, and the shortage of interstitial bits of comic business or even many Turgoose close-ups during the film’s second half compounds its schematic crudity. The scenario works if and only if Shaun is convincingly persuaded to be a racist, but not from Graham’s Combo are we going to get the chillingly charismatic advocacy of, say, Edward Norton in American History X: he’s just a thug, emotionally stunted and patently troubled, and the performance isn’t multi-layered enough to disguise or underplay these traits until their explosive revelation, in a powerfully acted scene with Milky, later.
However we slice it, the force of Combo’s personality is less than enough to get Shaun on side, so there’s also the memory of the boy’s dad, a Falklands casualty, to get him thinking, and it’s here that Meadows wishes to make an uneasy equation between violence at home and the sputtering legacy of British military imperialism overseas. Thomas Clay’s critically panned The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, intercutting its savage rape with images of Churchill and the Gulf War, took this same line of thinking to a notably senseless extreme, but while there’s nothing comparably pretentious in Meadows’s picture, what he’s actually trying to say remains disappointingly woolly and ill-thought-through. As a state-of-patriotism bulletin, This is England just seems to be going through the motions, and Shaun’s apparent conversion away from a racist mindset, mainly through a bloody kicking administered to Milky, by Combo, in a fit of self-pitying jealousy right near the end, is just as sudden and dramatically convenient as his lapse into it. This in itself might work if we felt impressionable little Shaun (shorn!) was still under the sway of mercurial, daily-shifting playground allegiances, which the early part of the film auspiciously suggests he is, but not many 11-year-olds have to carry the symbolic burden of a St George’s flag around or make a life decision using it, and the fact that Shaun is required to as part of his steep late-in-the-picture learning curve is a clear indication that we have Bigger Fish To Fry. Despite all the problems I’ve outlined, the movie is well worth wrestling with, and I don’t for a second regret that Meadows has attempted to make it, but I think his canvas is too small for the points he wants to get across, those points actually obscure the character detail he really excels at, and if he’d given Shaun slightly fewer of his big fish to cart around, the little ones might have made a filling meal all by themselves. B—