This Is England takes the viewer back to 1983, to Thatcherite Britain, and to a remote corner of England marked by pessimism and unemployment. We see this world from the point of view of a newly fatherless 12-year-old boy, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who—just in time—is adopted by a lovable band of teenage skinheads. The group becomes a surrogate family for Shaun, and his future seems brighter.
Into this world comes a darker force, Combo (Stephen Graham), an older skinhead who returns from a prison stint and introduces Shaun’s band to a nasty brand of racist nationalism. (As you undoubtedly know, a wave of racism did overtake British skinheads in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Before and after that time, skinhead culture was not synonymous with neo-fascist politics.) Combo’s actions split the group, and Shaun falls into orbit around Combo.
The divisiveness introduced by Combo is the central conflict of This Is England, of course. I won’t spoil anything for you, but I will say that director Shane Meadows’s story is absorbing. You can’t help but be on Shaun’s side, and you can’t help but be drawn to the band of skinheads that takes him in. Moreover, to the film’s credit, even Combo is not a caricature. He may be evil, or at least do some evil things, but This Is England makes certain to show us how he became the man he is.
The acting in This Is England is first-rate. In his first role(!), Turgoose comes across as a polished professional. Graham brings an almost scary charisma to Combo. And Joe Gilgun (Woody), Andrew Ellis (Gadget), Andrew Shim (Milky), and Vicky McClure (Lol), among others, give notable performances as members of the band of skinheads.
Best of all, there’s some real substance to This Is England. When I left the theater, I was thinking about the relationship between militarism (either of the Thatcherite or the non-Thatcherite variety), nationalism, and racism. I was really moved by This Is England, and I bet you will be, too.
I give This Is England three or three-and-a-half stars.
P.S. If, like me, you were a teenager in the early 1980s, you will absolutely be drawn to the music used in This Is England. Dexys Midnight Runners, anyone?