The Alternate History Boys
By Leo Goldsmith
This Is England
Dir. Shayne Meadows, U.K.,
War—as metaphor and as brute, if distant, reality—is invoked a great deal throughout Shane Meadows’s This Is England. In the montage of grainy video footage of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict at the beginning of film, and in its characters’ speeches about the embattled cultural (that is, racial) integrity of the not-so-Great Britain of 1983, one hears the battle cries, conjuring Henry V and the old wartime spirit of “soldiering on,” summoning the image of a scepter’d isle under siege. It is this persistent whisper of the word “war”—the distant and pointless foreign conflict, pursued for largely ulterior motives, and the barely veiled rhetoric of xenophobia and dangers in our midst—that reminds us of the connections between England as it was then and as it is today. Yes, this was England, but as Meadows’s title also states, this is England today.
As boldly as the film’s title makes a claim for the state of the U.K., then and now, it makes an equally strong statement about what is, was, and ought to be English cinema. For even if Shane Meadows’s name has eluded the ears of many cineastes on this side of the Atlantic, he has spent the last decade diligently building a body of work that has few contemporary analogs, a handful of terse, regionally specific films with an unmistakably singular voice. If not all of these succeed unequivocally (his curious, expensive 2002 Sergio Leone-esque romantic comedy, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, is something of a failure, even by Meadows’s own account), they nonetheless stand out from much of what is exported from the U.K. these days. And in this regard, This Is England can be seen as Meadows’s own battle cry for a different kind of British cinema.
It should not be terribly controversial to state that British films—at least those offered to us in the U.S.—maintain a very predictable course. For every Vera Drake, a Miss Marple; for every Alan Clarke, an Alan Bennett. Indeed, last year's “hit” film from Britain came to us from the unquestionably erudite Bennett, but The History Boys perfectly encapsulates the oddly muddled consciousness of contemporary British cinema: a hodgepodge of charming post\war fogies and cheeky, spotty (and perfunctorily diverse) punks, fond nostalgia and a grim view of the future, revolutionary politics and retrograde notions of British Heritage and the Academy. It would seem that Americans prefer the quainter version of British cinema to those films that tackle the complexities of British class and racial politics head on. Perhaps this is due to the inevitable provinciality of such a subject, or perhaps it’s because, in Britain, these issues make for a far less cut-and-dry, black-and-white narrative than in the American context. Even a comparatively savvy film like Hot Fuzz plumbs only the comic depths of the most stereotypical Cotswoldiana, while the farther expanses of England's interior, however green and pleasant, remain a nebulous gray to us outsiders.
This Is England takes place exclusively, even provincially, in the East Midlands, an alternating landscape of flat fields and estate housing, gray seaside and grayer pedestrian malls. As Meadows had previously established in his last film, Dead Man’s Shoes, there is as much dread in the rural as the semi-urban parts of this landscape, and all serve to reinforce the image of a region with low employment and few prospects for advancement. This is the environment in which we find our protagonist—Shane Meadows’s stand-in Shaun Fields—a lad of twelve whose father has been killed in the conflict with Argentina. With his mum as his only apparent companion, young Shaun runs the usual gauntlet of school bullies, who find much ammunition in his flared trousers and shaggy haircut. Fortunately for Shaun, however, he soon falls in with a group of local skinheads who, though they spend much of their time drinking lager in pedestrian tunnels, squabbling with each other, and generally getting up to no good, draw Shaun into a loyal and closely knit camaraderie. They also give him a new haircut and his first Ben Sherman.
The leader of this group, Woody, is Shaun's first skinhead mentor. It is through this curious, grandmotherly character (played charmingly by Joe Gilgun), more likely to be seen drinking a brew (that is, a cup of tea) than a beer, that Meadows means to immediately challenge our notion of skinhead culture, to present it in its most paradoxical light. Theirs is a tight social group, not without its vices and challenges to authority, but distinctly free of the stereotypes of loutish behavior and right-wing volatility. The group even makes room for Milky, a second-generation Jamaican, whose presence denotes the skinheads’ origins as a subculture derived from the cultural interaction of local white and immigrant black working classes. This now seldom-acknowledged root is neatly glossed in the sight of the cheeky, newly confident Shaun, strapping his suspenders over his Union Jack-checked Ben Sherman, singing along to Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop.”
Indeed, the pressure does drop with the arrival of Combo, an old friend of Woody’s who has spent the last several years in prison, squaring off against black inmates and acquiring a certain right-wing militancy. Combo’s return immediately draws a line in the sand, a challenge to the young white skinheads to protect England from outsiders and an entreaty to Milky to embrace his Englishness over his Jamaicanness (or else risk getting his head kicked in). Woody, Milky, and others of the group refuse Combo’s challenge, but Shaun stays, seduced by Combo’s paternal speechifying about Shaun not letting his father die in vain, and so begins a shift in the young man’s education about masculinity, the strong vs. the weak, bullying, and the inequities of British working class life. Soon, he and Combo are raising the St. George’s Cross, paki-bashing, tattooing crosses on Shaun’s fingers, and attending National Front meetings.
In this way, the film's title—and Combo’s enraged invocation of it—boldly asserts a claim (or series of claims) about what England is, or, more pointedly, who it is. On the one side, a deteriorating sense of nationalistic English heritage, a sense of racial and social purity, represented at its farthest extreme by the National Front. And on the other, an England that even today struggles to be acknowledged: England as a heterogeneous nation, interpolated with colonial transplants who inevitably infuse the well-guarded, local English culture with their own. But among Meadows’s points is that the racism that has grown out of these competing definitions of Englishness, this sense of an embattled heritage, is endemic and not localized to a bunch of deranged punks and skinheads. The National Front meeting, one of the most quietly frightening scenes in a film filled with low-bubbling, subterranean terror, takes place at the back of a pub and comprises every type of white British male imaginable: suits, farmers, factory workers, louts, and punks alike. Theirs is a shared sense of a culture in crisis, spurred by Thatcher’s brutal monetarism and the protections offered colonial immigrants under the welfare state.
Through the opposition of Woody and Combo the film also offers a series of claims about what defines skinhead culture, and what it is to stand for. Meadows wants not only to add a rounder picture to the history of racial tension in Eighties Britain but also to give depth to the type most frequently associated with it. Rather than reify the uni-dimensional stereotype of a pale-skinned militant screaming “Oi!” (although such things do happen here and elsewhere), the film present skinheads as a more divisive group. As obliquely suggested by Combo's very name, the film’s skinhead world is a tenuous subculture of heterogeneous provenance, whose fissures are widening to create smaller and increasingly polarized factions. But although the skinhead and Jamaican cultures shared some familial ties, they had thoroughly distanced itself from one another by the 1980s: the white proletarian, so indebted to the 1960s black “rude boy” and his rejection of dominant, white, bourgeois, had finally little to share with the late 1970s Rasta, who emphasized blackness and unity (rather than open struggle) with a sharply different visual aesthetic and political consciousness. Indeed, aside from Milky and a perpetually victimized Pakistani shopkeeper, the world of these skinheads is surprisingly pale in color, with only brief glimpses of the South Asian women that work at the local factory and their children trying to peaceably play footie in the neighborhood (without being threatened with Combo’s machete). And for much of the film, the history and development of the skinheads is left undisclosed, almost as though it has been deliberately forgotten (or, if we are focalized through Shaun, simply not yet learned), a convenient amnesia that blinds Combo and others to the hypocrisy of their ideals of purity.
But if Woody and Combo seem to stand in for the kind and the nasty skinhead, respectively, the film is careful not to oppose them too dialectically: each is qualified with the emotions and motivations of richer characters and not made to stand in for entire political movements. In this regard, Meadows does more than offer Combo as a well-rounded villain; he makes him into a full-fledged character, hardly a villain at all. When Combo offers paternal love to Shaun, it is genuine and a sure sign of what he himself lacked at Shaun's age. And when, in the film’s most unexpectedly tortuous sequence, he reaches out to Woody’s girlfriend, Lol, with a promise of romantic love, her rejection stings the audience even as it devastates Combo. Stephen Graham makes Combo's pain visible, and so, as in Meadows’s Dead Man's Shoes, there is no sympathy for a devil, but for a deeply troubled, shockingly unpleasant, but no less charming character. It is the war within him—and by extension, within the minds of many embittered, working class young men left behind in Thatcher’s England—that Meadows’s film most strikingly portrays. Personified by Combo and Shaun alike, it is a conflict of seemingly tiny, local proportions, but of massive and long-standing consequence.