Spurred by recent events in the UK, including the British pound’s abrupt decline to its lowest value since the mid-80s and David Cameron’s embarrassing attempt at quoting The Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates,” I felt a compulsion to watch Shane Meadows’ This Is England. Released in 2006, the story takes place in 1983, in the aftermath of the Falklands War.
As This Is England begins we are introduced to “Shaun” (Thomas Turgoose), whose father was killed in action, leaving him and his mother, “Cynthia” (Jo Hartley), to fend for themselves in their working class seaside town. They live in a flat next door to a Church of Christ bearing the graffito “Maggie is a TWAT!” on its front. Feeling alone and grieving for his dad, Shaun, a sullen twelve-year-old, is also the target of bullies. Things seemingly change for the better, though, when Shaun happens upon some drifters under a bridge, who decide to befriend him. “Woody” (Joseph Gilgun), the leader of the gang, takes a particular liking to Shaun, becoming a kind of big brother. As Shaun finds acceptance among his new mates he soon takes on the attire his adopted post-punk skinhead life, complete with “Lol” (Vicky McClure) shaving his head.
However, things take a dramatic change when “Combo” (Stephen Graham) returns from prison, having done three-and-a-half years on Woody’s behalf for an unexplained offense. What becomes apparent as Combo reclaims his place among friends is that he’s assumed a political awareness based on race and class, but especially race, which, according to Woody, wasn’t like him before. This Is England is ultimately about how vitriolic racism disguising itself as patriotism, ie the National Front, feeds on the listless and uneducated; people who are in desperate need of someone to tell them that their depressed and impoverished lives are not their fault. It’s the London establishment and immigrants who are ruining the country, or so the blood and soil rhetoric of nationalism goes.
Which ones will follow Combo and which ones won’t? A once tightly-knit group of friends suddenly starts to fray. As for Shaun, he misses his dad terribly. So, he unfortunately thinks that following Combo will enable him to redeem his dad’s death in a pointless war over the last remnant of a fallen British empire. The story of Shaun, along with Combo, Woody, and Lol, not to mention “Milky” (Andrew Shim), the lone person of color in this debacle of grassroots hate-mongering, is the story of a Britain that has long struggled to define itself amidst the shards of a former colonial glory. This is England then. Yes. This is England now.