This Is England (2007)
Shane Meadows’ first film, Twenty Four Seven, was a work that promised big things without delivering them, hyper-realistic but slightly hollow. Meadows seemed to realise this himself, and his follow-up, the superb A Room For Romeo Brass, was looser and artfully artless, establishing a great gift for organic character studies of very ordinary people, which often defy cliche in their story arcs. This Is England is a concise, quietly symphonic expansion of his style, if not his material, one of the best directors of actors working, and proves him the only director in Britain doing something interesting with the Loach/Leigh tradition, as well as retaining of dash of Truffaut and Dickens in his interest in poetic-realist portraits of youth – the search for a way to grow up in a time and place that makes a mockery of human potential is Meadows’ strongest theme. This Is England has the advantage of a very concentrated, simple story that happens to involve a personalised take on a specific cultural moment. The longings and losses of its young hero, Shaun (Thomas Thurgoose), make him grip like a limpet to anyone who can give him an iota of love and empowerment, gravitating from the gregarious Woody (Joe Gilgun) to the fierce, bullock-browed ex-con skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham) who promises to barge his way through the bullshit of Thatcherite Britain. Except Combo’s a mass of conflicting, entwined impulses, whose desperate, quaking desire for love and acceptance is counterbalanced by a vast, rumbling rage for a world that denied it, so the small family he builds for himself in his tribe of skinheads, and his xenophobic passion, are sides of the same coin, to both reach out and embrace and reject and destroy. Finally, both impulses collide head on in a brutal finish we sense is coming but are not certain who it will involve and when it will come. Meadows effortlessly swings the tone between wispy joy, serio-comic romance, and taut foreboding. The film is hurt by a postscript that is flabby and obvious, to let us know it’s all okay, as Shaun reassures us with a foolish symbolic act. If Meadows had ended it on the same note of woozy shock where Scorsese ended Mean Streets, he’d have had a far more emphatic film.