This Is England (IFC Films/Red Envelope, NR)

film_england_smThough director Shane Meadows' understanding of psychology appears to be strictly at the base level, he depicts Combo as a deeply complex and fascinating character, torn by humanism and patriotism.

 

 

 

 

 

film_england

There's something about films tackling issues of racism that makes people feel good about themselves afterward. It has little to do with a quality of filmmaking than a justification of political correctness. Characters are permitted grizzly acts of hatred, just as long as they learn their lesson at the end. Really, neither Crash nor American History X are good films; they just push the right buttons for the right people. This Is England, on the other hand, is a good film, directed by Shane Meadows (Dead Man's Shoes, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) with a surprisingly tenderness. Unfortunately, it, too, falls under the didactic eye of a filmmaker with a purpose. Meadows based the film, set in the early '80s during Margaret Thatcher's regime over the United Kingdom, on his own upbringing, balancing a coming-of-age tale with his anti-racism agenda.

One can't help but want to call Meadows an asshole for assuming that his childhood would warrant a title like This Is England, as if our understanding of 1983 England should be determined from the eyes of an aggressive 11-year-old boy, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose). There's also an assumption that the tale told in This Is England is still representative of England today, with the influx of immigration and questioning of nationality. These are just nitpicky traits of egoism that thankfully don't come off in the film as much as they might on paper.

As for race politics, I have to give Meadows credit for not applying to the Higher Learning school of neo-Nazism (in which skinheads hang outside of school campuses to recruit lonely, a-bit-too-eager souls into their "family"). Shaun's posse of fashionable skinheads suffers a great division once Combo (the excellent Stephen Graham) gets released from prison. It's suggested that Combo took the rap for the reigning head of the troop, Woody (Joseph Gilgun), and that, in prison, the fire of "nationalism," coupled with racism, flooded the mind of Combo, who also appears to be older than the rest of the gang. Through simpleton psychology, Combo convinces young Shaun to join the ranks of the British National Front, in defending the honor of his father who died in the Falkland's War.

Though Meadows' understanding of psychology appears to be strictly at the base level, he depicts Combo as a deeply complex and fascinating character, torn by humanism and patriotism. Combo is at turns gentle and frightening, almost an extension of the Angry Young Man character who was so popular in 1960s and '70s British cinema (see If… and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). Meadows also elicits effective performances from both Graham and Turgoose. Though riddled with imperfection, This Is England is a film that can sit easy in the stomachs of those turned off by moralizing depictions of racism in cinema. | Joe Bowman

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