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Arts & Culture

This is England

Mods, rockers, new romantics, skinheads. It's the summer of 1983 and British youth culture is thriving. Margaret Thatcher is in office and it's a little more than a year after the Faulklands War, so there's a general conservatism to feel rebellious about. Twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose in his first acting role) is a lonely kid who still grieves for his dad who died in the Faulklands. His mom (Jo Hartley) cares for him but is a bit disconnected from his life. After suffering abuse from kids on the last day of school, Shaun encounters a gang of skinheads. Contrary to what we might expect, the leader, Woody (Joe Gilgun), turns out to be friendly and takes little Shaun under his wing.

Thomas Turgoose is simply brilliant in This is England (IFC Films)

One of the things that Meadows shows is that back then Skinheads and neo-Nazi racism weren't yet synonymous. Woody's gang listens to ska music and includes the black Milky (Andrew Shim who played the title character in Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass ). Woody looks out for Shaun and indoctrinates him into the gang. At one party, Shaun even engages in his first kiss with a girl (Rosamund Hanson in an oddly sweet role) who makes herself up like androgynous pop star Boy George. But things change when Combo (Stephen Graham) arrives on the scene. Combo seethes with rage and he instills a bitter angry tone into the gang. Woody, Milky and the girls sense the change in tone and choose to walk away. Woody tries to convince Shaun to come with them but Shaun has an anger inside as well and he chooses to stay with Combo.

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Meadows obviously knows the working class neighborhoods that he depicts. There's a grit and honesty to his film as he chronicles the mundane details of these kids' lives. He also conveys an understanding for what can fuel the hate in people like Combo. We sense that Combo is too far gone to change but not Shaun. Shaun--possibly like Meadows was when he was a kid--is at a point where he needs to make a decision about how he wants to live his life.

Stephen Graham in This is England (IFC Films)

For about two-thirds of the film, Meadows delivers a fine work in the tradition of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. The film has an improvised, natural flow as if Meadows were shooting a documentary rather than a dramatic narrative. But after a violent outburst the film goes soft. In this final third we feel Meadows manipulating the plot to deliver a message, and there's a sense or moral judgment that was not evident earlier. This weakens but does not ruin the film.

The cast excels, especially young Turgoose. There's something old about him in some shots, as if he has a weariness beyond his twelve years. When he smiles he can look quite endearing but then he can let his face harden in anger and we can see a capacity for violence that's scary. Graham is also a surprise. He played the likable and inept Tommy in Guy Ritchie's Snatch , and here he turns in a chilling and riveting performance. Meadows has a real knack for letting performers blossom under his guiding hand, especially new and untried talents like Turgoose here or Shim in Meadows' earlier A Room for Romeo Brass. The ease and conviction of his actors often make up for the shortcomings in the plot.

This is England (unrated but contains language, drug use and sexual content) reveals that Meadows is still a director with strong potential. He also has a good ear and eye for the capturing working class towns like the one he grew up in. The film also has killer music.

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Companion viewing: Twentyfourseven, A Room for Romeo Brass, Sweet Sixteen, Quadrophenia -----