This is England 3 stars
Starring Thomas Turgoose, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley and Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Shane Meadows. Released by IFC. UR; 1:38.
The British arts scene can best be imagined as a gloom factory churning out dour social realists. To wit: director Shane Meadows. He made his name in the indie circuit with “TwentyFourSeven” and “A Room for Romeo Brass,” both dark, coming-of-age dramas set amid the public housing developments that sprang up in the UK after WWII. An excursion into comedy with the painfully unfunny “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands” — an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved — only served to remind him that he’s best at generating heartache, not belly laughs.
“This is England,” playing at U of L’s Floyd Theater from Thursday to Sunday, is a return to his very sober roots. Set in 1983, it follows Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old boy languishing in a bleak working-class town. Having just lost his father in the Falklands War, he’s emotionally lost and desperate for acceptance. He lands with a group of skinheads who, contrary to the usual stereotypes, are pretty harmless. Mostly, they like to sit around, smoke joints and listen to reggae. It’s not a good place for a tweenie, but not all that atypical either.
Things change when the clique is overtaken by Combo (Stephen Graham), an older ex-con who steers much of the group toward racist ultra-nationalism. Combo sees a lot of himself in Shaun and takes special care to initiate him into the new racist skinhead underground. Shaun, desperate for a father figure, will do anything to please him.
“This is England” strikes an emotional chord, largely because of extraordinary acting by a cast dominated by newcomers. Graham is the only acting veteran, and it shows with his nuanced and mesmerizing performance. Combo is deeply conflicted, charismatic but intensely insecure, at once manipulative and easily manipulated. And Turgoose, whose sad, overturned eyes are the visual center of the movie, will absolutely break your heart.
On the spectrum of Neo-Nazi movies (not exactly an unpleasant sub-genre), “This is England” falls somewhere between the mediocre early Russell Crowe vehicle “Romper Stomper” and the pinnacle of the genre, “American History X.” Meadows, who has said this film is largely autobiographical, portrays the skinhead subculture of the 1980s as victimized by its own success. Its ability to absorb England’s fuck-ups and give them a sense of community allowed a hyper-masculine but initially racially tolerant movement to be hijacked by the far right.
This grim subject matter can make “This is England” a tough watch, and one that’s not always worthwhile. Yes, the angry rejection of 1980s nostalgia and nuanced performances are welcome. But the movie also suffers from the usual voyeurism and condescension that comes from filming the poor and dispossessed. Even worse, it’s hard not to notice a tone of self-pity throughout. And feeling sorry for Neo-Nazis? That’s even harder.