PATRIOT GAMES : Shane Meadows’ ‘This Is England’ [7/10]

One of the more bewilderingly volatile careers in current world cinema shows overdue signs of stabilisation with This Is England, a rough-edged but utterly heartfelt autobiographical tale of troubled Midlands youth set in the turbulent, post-Falklands summer of 1983. It's the story of Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old mourning his father – a soldier killed during the previous year's South Atlantic conflict. Small for his age, but bright enough and feisty when provoked, Shaun lives in an unspecified, coastal, working-class town (the film was shot in Nottingham and Grimsby*) with his mother Cynthia (Jo Hartley).

Subject to teasing and bullying at school, he drifts into knockabout friendship with a group of sympathetic local skinheads informally 'led' by the laid-back Woody (Joseph Gilgun). But when Woody's old pal Combo (Stephen Graham) returns to the scene following a spell in jail, the atmosphere becomes much more fractious and tense. Combo has adopted nationalist right-wing politics while 'inside', and his vocal support for the National Front soon fractures Woody's gang – which includes a member, Milky (Andrew Shim), who's of Caribbean descent – and forces Shaun into choosing where his loyalties lie…

After making something of a name for himself with 60-minuter Small Time (1997) and monochrome debut feature TwentyFourSeven (1997), the self-taught Meadows delivered the uneven but promising A Room For Romeo Brass (1999), followed it up with the near-unmitigated disaster that was Once Upon A Time in the Midlands (2002) and then, just when it looked like the supposed great new hope of British cinema was turning into a busted flush, he unleashed Dead Man's Shoes (2004) – an emotionally-shattering minor masterpiece which remains one of top half-dozen or so European films of the present decade.

Having thus set the bar so very high for himself, Meadows perhaps inevitably falls some way short of that achievement here. He'd collaborated with Paul Fraser on the scripts for TwentyFourSeven, Romeo Brass and Midlands, then co-wrote Dead Man's Shoes with Paddy Considine – a story which drew heavily on both men's own traumatic experiences of grief and loss. This Is England marks the first time that Meadows is the sole credited screenwriter on one of his own features, and this perhaps partly explains why occasionally it does feel like a slightly awkward 'debut feature' – especially in the first half, when the tone veers between humour and seriousness (Meadows' track record indicates he's much more skilled with the latter than the former, though he's clearly unshakably fond of using comedy in his films.) The early stretches seem a little too studied in their nostalgic evocation of Shaun's grubby urban milieu – the characters kitted out in implausibly new and clean-looking gear, lolling around in environments clearly location-hunted and lit for maximum graffiti-strewn anti-glamour (not to mention Ludovico Einaudi's intrusive strings-heavy score which throughout is more of a nuisance than a blessing, especially if the film is seen via [scratchy-sounding] digital projection rather than from a celluloid print.)

It's only with the abrupt arrival – eruption, rather – of Combo that the picture really clicks into gear: overdue narrative momentum is forcibly provided by the character's energy and volatility, his misguided passions (both political and personal), and by Graham's ferociously charismatic performance. This Is England becomes, in effect, Meadows' Platoon, as young Shaun – clearly still devastated by the loss of his dad – is torn between contrasting 'father figures' in the form of Woody and Combo. But if the former is the 'Willem Dafoe' to the latter's 'Tom Berenger', Meadows avoids the temptation to precisely emulate the Oliver Stone picture's tragic climax. He does deliver the horrifying outburst of violence which has been bubbling up ever since Combo's first appearance, but it doesn't happen in the manner, or at the time, the audience is led to expect – which makes it all the more traumatic for us to experience.

But if This Is England is very much the proverbial film "of two halves," there are certain consistent pleasures which mean it's never less than watchable and absorbing: Meadows' ear for dialogue remains pin-sharp, though of course his improvisational methods mean that credit must also go to the actors and to Michelle Smith, responsible for the casting. Old Meadows favourite Frank Harper is terrific in his one-scene cameo as a National Front rabblerouser, though it's a shame more room wasn't found for Rosamund Hanson, who's a delight as 'Smell', Shaun's slightly older, significantly taller 'love interest': the kitchen-table two-hander in which she explains the derivation of her unsavoury-sounding nickname to Jo is a deadpan comic vignette reminiscent of a top-form Victoria Wood.

Smell's tenative romantic interludes with Shaun also showcase Meadows at his best, turning what could have been awkward or distasteful into something magical and true. He's always been terrific with child actors, of course, and Turgoose is a terrific find: Shaun always comes across as a real kid rather than a movie character, to the extent that some may wonder how much of this 'performance' is "acting" as we know it, and how much is it more a case Turgoose having a riot of a time on-set with his mates – though this isn't to diminish Meadows or Turgoose's remarkable achievement by a single iota. There's one particularly striking moment which shows both to particular advantage, when Shaun – by now under Combo's noxious influence – taunts a local shopkeeper with vile racist abuse. As the outraged adult pursues him round the store aisles, we see Shaun let slip an entirely natural little giggle: he's still less a junior footsoldier in some nationalist conflict, more a kid enjoying a particularly naughty game. Innocence may indeed be war's first casualty but, in this instance, it doesn't isn't going down without a fight…

Neil Young
20th May, 2007

THIS IS ENGLAND : [7/10] : UK 2006 : Shane MEADOWS : 103 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Cineworld cinema, Boldon (UK), 8th May 2007 – public show (paid  £5.20) – digital projection