"This is England" is a viewing experience that makes you want to rip the main character off the screen to protect him from making horrible mistakes. It's a thoroughly exhaustive, hand-wringing emotional stick of provincial dynamite that viciously grabs the audience by the collar and drags them through the gummy muck of lives gone horribly wrong.
Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a lonesome 12-year-old boy mourning the loss of his father to the Falklands War and failing to properly deal with bullies at his school. Crossing his path one day is a group of rather jovial skinheads, who take to Shaun and quickly adopt him as one of the gang. Shaun, now decked out in a Ben Sherman shirt and Dr. Martens, is filled with a sense of family and purpose, but the gang dynamic changes when Combo (Stephen Graham, "Snatch") is released from prison and looks to reclaim his leadership role. Now back in control, Combo turns the gang away from friendship and back to a force of hate, dragging a confused Shaun along for the rise as it reaches increasingly violent and frustrated levels.
Writer/director Shane Meadows could be criticized for the worrisome quality of a few of his films, but never his commitment to emotional authenticity. He's a sensitive soul, madly searching for passionate flashes of communication that connect the audience to the screen and lend his characters a theater of reality to explore. "This is England" is Meadows most personal work, taking the audience back to 1983, when the U.K. was lost in a post-Falklands fog, which imparted the working class with an even greater socioeconomic bill to pay. "England" is equal parts a tribute to and lament of the era, when hope wasn't completely lost, just distributed disproportionately across the land.
The cruel twist of the film is that Shaun is our tour guide to all this massive discontent; a troubled kid who's expectedly vulnerable to peer pressure and longs for a surrogate father. Played with raw-nerve, fists-clenched poise by Turgoose, Shaun is a firecracker of a child, quick with a retort, begging for that last drop of trouble. He's lost without a parental figure, leaving him frighteningly wide open to the gracious mischief of the skinheads. The gang gives Shaun the identity he's been craving, and Meadows renders this desire skillfully through Turgoose's bottomless reactions. We can see Shaun come alive with this new attention and can only agonize silently when his trust is placed into the wrong hands.
Once Combo enters the picture, "England" goes from a slice-of-life medley of pre-teen growing pain sequences to something more defined in purpose and familiar in trajectory. Meadows has a tendency to overcook Combo's threat to his brotherhood and Shaun, pouring Ludovico Einaudi's suffocating score on heavily, which has a nasty habit of underlining the misery of Shaun's situation, and later, Combo's eventual emotional unraveling. However, that doesn't prevent "England" from evoking intense feelings of anger and pity for these lost souls, a theme that Meadows is excellent at capturing.
Bolstered by a ska-heavy soundtrack, nostalgic period details, and a thematic tying of the film's events to a scathing historical backdrop, "England" achieves a startling you-are-there atmosphere that emboldens every moment of drama. It's a complex, highly visceral web of social terror, misplaced faith, and violent manipulation that is pulled off incredibly, making "This is England" a must-see viewing experience.
For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com