If Shane Meadows directorial breakthrough Dead Man’s Shoes was about loss of innocence, the follow up This Is England portrays what comes next…
Set against the backdrop of the Falklands War during Thatcher’s Britain, This Is England is a coming of age tale of both a troubled boy named Shaun and the country as a whole. Meadows perfectly captures life as a 12 year old boy in a Northern town. No matter what the era or the place, there are always similarities to be drawn and recognized which is why films like Kes still resonant so strongly.
Meadows’ great strength as a director and story teller is to search for a certain romance in the terraced houses of Northern England. However, romance and beauty often go hand in hand with pain and anger and to show one without the other would be doing a great injustice to the Northern soul that Meadows so prides himself in portraying. Unlike the irrepressibly bleak Dead Man’s Shoes, This Is England is actually a warm and light hearted film for long stretches but it builds to a powerful and jarring conclusion that is uncomfortable to watch. This stark ending is in no way gratuitous though. In much the same way as the Star Wars films are revealed to be about Darth Vadar and not Luke Skywalker, This Is England is actually more about charismatic and violent gang leader Combo than main protagonist Shaun.
Meadows not only has an eye for authenticity when choosing often inexperienced actors for his films, he also has a knack for getting the best out of his more established cast members. Paddy Considine’s performance in Dead Man’s Shoes was worthy of an Oscar nomination that of course never came. Surpassing even Considine’s master class though is Stephen Graham as the aforementioned Combo. It is a terrifying and visceral performance from Graham who perfectly captures the manipulative bully we have all encountered at some point in our life. His central speech about immigration is a thing of beauty and it is a brave move from Meadows to have such an articulate and on the face of it fairly logical argument about race coming out of the mouth of such a vile character.
It is so easy to make a film about racism and have the antagonist be an ignorant straw man who it is easy to hate. As shown with Ed Norton’s Derek Vinyard from American History X however an eloquent racist makes for a much more compelling story than a stupid one.
This Is England is an unflinching look into the life of millions of people across Great Britain. It is a love letter to the British Isles but also a warning sticker. Ultimately it is a film that hopes we can all do better.