Angry -- but Embraceable -- Young Men

"This Is England" explores 1980s skinhead culture through a gang of British lads. Though darkly shadowed, the perceptive film from Shane Meadows avoids gloominess. (Photos By Dean Rogers -- Ifc First Take)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

"This Is England," a 1980s-set memoir about skinheads, Doc Martens and Maggie Thatcher, reaches us powerfully across the vales of culture and time.

That's because Shane Meadows's movie illuminates the humanistic impulses of even the most reprehensible of its head-shaven, combat-booted youth. The audience is never allowed to retreat into the reassuring corner of sanctimony. We're forced to see every character -- Pakistani-hating bigots included -- as part of our own human spectrum. And as one glint-eyed lad rails against the buildup of mosques in England -- poor, beleaguered, proud, white old England -- there's an eerie prescience to this bygone era.

By focusing on the moral and emotional dilemmas among a group of skinheads in an economically depressed community, Meadows evokes the frustrations of a larger constituency -- those who saw no upside to Thatcher's supply-side economics, the Falklands War or the proliferation of immigrants. And thanks to these sympathetically drawn characters, the darker question looming overhead-- whether or not to join the forces of hatred -- has deep resonance.

The movie follows the story of 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who's emotionally needy after the death of his father in the Falklands and from the bullying he suffers at school. When he falls in with a gang of skinheads, he finds the social identity he has been craving.

Even though their idea of fun can be edgy -- at one point, they dress up in eccentric military costumes and wreak destruction inside an abandoned home -- these boys are a benevolent bunch. Their leader, Woody (Joseph Gilgun), is protective of Shaun and values group hugs. And one of their members is a Jamaican-- a sweet-hearted lad (Andrew Shim) by the name of Milky. (Meadows is clearly emphasizing that many of the original skinhead groups, which appreciated reggae music and often had black or Asian members, were not especially racist or even political.) Initially upset about her son's new buzz cut and his insistence on buying Doc Martens boots, Shaun's widowed mother (Jo Hartley) understands happiness in her child when she sees it.

But harmony dissolves when the volatile Combo (Stephen Graham) -- just out of prison -- rejoins Woody's gang. A disturbing personality, who suggests an English combination of Timothy McVeigh and Mike Tyson, he urges the gang to join the neo-Nazi movement. While this idea doesn't sit well with Woody, Milky and others, who leave the circle, Shaun is entranced by Combo's assertion that joining the fascists will honor the memory of his father.

Despite its dark forebodings, "This Is England" is anything but gloomy to sit through. There's something bright and compelling about the characters; we're too emotionally involved in their lives to fixate on the depressing backdrop. Newcomer Turgoose, who looks like a wizened adult in a child's body, has a cheeky, sweet mien as Shaun. He skitters endearingly between saint and devil. And in his clumsily romantic scenes with a girl affectionately named Smell (an adorable Rosamund Hanson), he seems genuinely and affectingly shy.

At the darker end, Graham takes us on a helter-skelter journey from edgy sweetness -- he's charming with Shaun and even good-natured at times -- to outright terror. When he flies his true colors -- in a hate speech that gives this movie its title -- the miniature St. George's Cross tattooed into his forehead all but pulsates on its own. And his villainy is all the more terrifying for the disconcerting humanity Graham brings to the role.

Meadows, whose socially conscious films are set in the semi-impoverished pockets of England's midland and northern regions, has always been about compassion. But his latest movie raises that feeling to a higher level because the country's future rides on it. Among these characters, there is a good England, one of northern hospitality, singsong accents, cheeky humor and racial acceptance. And that makes Combo's intrusion into their lives a threat to the very soul of the nation.

This Is England (102 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains profanity, racial epithets and violence.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company