Tuesday, April 24, 2007

THIS IS ENGLAND - powerful British tragi-comedy

THIS IS ENGLAND is a meticulously put-together tragicomedy from British writer-director, Shane Meadows. It's set in England during the early 1980s and the opening credits sequence is a montage of everything good and grim about that era: Roland Rat, Rubik's Cube, the Falklands War, the Miners' Strike and the Brixton Riots. It was a time of great economic upheaval and social unrest, but also of fantastic new movements in music and fashion. The movie channels all this contradictory nostalgia and repulsion into a single story set in a Midlands town among a gang of skin-heads. At first, Meadows implicitly argues that the movement as a whole and this gang in particular were a bunch of well-meaning kids who liked to dress a certain way and listen to a certain kind of music. But despite the no-nonsense urban look, it was at heart a multi-racial movement for working class white and black kids. This was especially reflected in Two-Tone music, some of which makes it to the movie's sound-track. In the film, the heart of this happy alliance takes the form of Woody (Joseph Gilgun), a love-able white skin-head who takes pity on a lonely, bolshie little 12 year old called Shaun. He buys him cool clothes, stops him from getting bullied and gives him someone look up to - something he's been missing since his dad died in the Falklands. Woody's also best mates with a West Indian skin-head called Milky (Andrew Shim). The first half of THIS IS ENGLAND shows the gang hanging out, having a laugh and indulging in the odd bit of casual violence. It's absolutely hysterical, laugh-out-loud cinema; excellently written and delivered with superb comic timing by the whole cast, but especially the young Thomas Turgoose.

But much as with the movement, the gang gets hijacked by a darker, nastier strain of violent racism when an ex-con called Combo (Stephen Graham) turns up. He sees a world of mass unemployment and social under-privelege and comes to resent the immigrant population for their apparent success - with appalling results. The second half of the movie ratchets up the tension, with tour-de-force dramatic exchanges. The only weakness is that the film has about three endings. What this means is that we get some provocative use of Falklands war footage. I'm not sure whether Meadows had any clear idea what he was trying to say with the juxtaposition of the domestic drama and these images. Moreover, we get a final shot that references THE 400 BLOWS and, to my mind, is a lot less powerful than it should've been because of this distraction.

THIS IS ENGLAND played Toronto and London 2006 and Berlin and Dublin 2007. It opens in the UK on Friday, in the US on July 27th and in Australia on August 16th.

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