Favourite British Film - This is England (Meadows, 2006)
Compared to a lot of genres I’ve considered in the past week or two, the choice of my favourite British film was ultimately a very simple decision. There were only two contenders and as I’d already decided that the other option was going to be my favourite horror film (probably obvious but I won’t explicitly say which film that is until I get round to that genre), it was an easy choice to decide on ‘This is England’ as my favourite film made by a British director, filmed in Britain and to it’s very core British.
‘This is England’ is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever watched; Shane Meadows has that crucial skill that all great film makers need, the ability to fill his films with characters you connect with and care about, often despite them being the bad guys.
It’s a tale of a young boy named Shaun (played with incredible subtlety and precocious skill by Thomas Thurgoose, who was only 14 when the film was made and in his first acting role) who is first taken in by a group of well intentioned older teenagers, then introduced to the world of nationalism and racial hatred by the arrival of Stephen Graham’s Combo.
At its core ‘This is England’ is a classic tale of innocence corrupted, set in a period of English history where innocence and optimism were in short supply, the 1980s and Thatcher’s Britain. Meadows’ vision of the 1980s is grim, full of identikit grey council homes, over cast skies and racist bigotry, but it isn’t without bright points; the camaraderie between Shaun and the group that takes him in, led by the charismatic Woody and his best friend Milky is full of joyous moments that capture the intensity of finding a place where you belong.
It is the way in which Shaun drifts away from this group towards Combo and his National Front ideology that forms the heart-breaking centre of this film. As mentioned earlier the film is a tale of lost innocence and Meadows makes his audience want to protect Shaun from the world by introducing him in a pair of scenes which establish that his father had died serving in the Armed Forces during the Falklands conflict and that he gets bullied by other kids at school.
By creating that protective feeling he makes the moments where Shaun starts sprouting racist statements so filled with anguish. We’re given a personal stake in the scene and so it makes it all the more painful to watch this young boy slide into a world full of hatred and anger.
This brings me to the other key theme of ‘This is England’; anger. Meadows was a teenager in the 80s, growing up in the midlands and I can’t help but wonder if he is channelling some of his own personal experiences into the film. ‘This is England’ is full of anger, anger lacking worthwhile direction so aimed at the easiest targets, immigrants. It’s an anger at a lack of opportunities for the white, working class, an anger at the fact that the generation growing up in the 80s saw the promise of the baby boomer generation go unfulfilled and an anger at feeling powerless to change your own situation.
Therein lies the genius of the film. I don’t want to spoil the film or the TV sequel, ‘This is England 86’, which incidentally would be a strong contender for my favourite piece of British Television, but I want to write a separate blog about that someday. However I will say that if you are hoping that Combo will be a straightforward bad guy you may be left feeling a little disappointed. Meadows and the fantastic Stephen Graham make sure that Combo never becomes a caricature of a National Front supporter; here is a character so filled with pain and frustration that despite the disgraceful acts he carries out you can’t help but feel some sympathy for him, even if merely that he’s become this man.
It’s a film full of sweet moments contrasted by brutal ones and what better metaphor for growing up could there be than that. It’s moving in the way cinema really should be; challenging, honest, complicated and passionate and I struggle to think of too many films of any genre that achieved more of an emotional impact on first watching. It’s one of those rare films that left me rooted in my seat as the end credits rolled, accompanied by a beautiful cover of the Smiths song ‘There is a light that never goes out’ and then a glorious bit of solo piano from Ludovico Einaudi, a man who is a favourite of the director. I didn’t want to move and leave the world of the film, so fascinated and emotionally invested as I was by this point and it’s not often you find a film that can do that to you. I’m one of the biggest advocates of the escapism of film but as soon as the credits appear on screen I tend to snap out of it, immediately wanting to move onto the next part of my day, but not with ‘This is England’, instead I wanted to think about it, to work out how I felt and just extend the viewing experience a little longer. Surely that’s what you want from a great film?
Today's song is another that features on the excellent soundtrack for the film, but it's a little more upbeat than the two mentioned above.