This is England is a film that rests on its ability to recreate a time and place. In this case that setting is the town of Nottingham, England during the early eighties. Times are bad in the UK, Margret Thatcher is in power, the economy is in trouble, and the Falkland war is raging. It is not these things that the film focuses on, but rather the emergence of the skinhead sub-culture and how it rapidly turned from a relatively harmless style choice into a disturbing racist movement that continues to this day.
This story is told from the perspective of a twelve year old boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who’s new to the area and whose father has recently been killed in the Falkland war. Ostracized by his fellow students, Shaun finds himself falling in with a group of skinheads lead by the charismatic teenager named Woody (Joseph Gilgun). These skinheads are nothing like the violent racists seen in films like American History X, rather they seem like a clique with a unified style not unlike the punk scene. The group wares dock Martens, suspenders, and have shaved heads but they are not racist; in fact the members is a black Jamaican named Milky (Andrew Shim). This harmonious nature comes to a screeching halt when an old friend of Woody’s named Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from jail and brings with him every negative trait skinheads are now known for. Shaun finds himself having to choose between the racist and non racist sects of the movement.
Deep down this film is less about skinheads or racism than it is about the coming of age of the Shaun character. The film has a lot in common with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and includes an unmistakable reference to that new wave classic at the end. Like that film, This is England places a shockingly young kid in a very rough environment. The original clique Shaun joins isn’t racist, but it certainly isn’t what one would call wholesome, and when he falls in with Combo his future really begins to look grim. Turgoose’s performance is key to the film’s success, bad child actors can easily ruin a movie, but fortunately Turgoose manages to pull off a very good performance here.
Even more impressive are the performances of Joseph Gilgun and Stephen Graham. Both of these actors have the challenge of being believable role models for Shaun despite the unsavory aspects of their characters. Gilgum manages to seem like a very likable and charismatic person even though he has a shaved head and looks like he’s wearing a Clockwork Orange outfit. He has to make the audience believe that he could attract Shaun into this world, and at the same time he has to make sure he doesn’t appear menacing. Graham has an even bigger challenge in that he has to play someone who will attract Shaun into an even more unsavory group. Furthermore, Graham must feel like a charismatic and persuasive personality, while acting like a raving maniac. This is a brilliant performance that reminds the viewer of Edward Norton’s powerful work in American History X.
A big challenge the film has is that it tries to do more than simply criticize racism; it also tries to explain how people become racists. The characters here are living in a flawed society and they have a number of things to be legitimately mad about. Unfortunately they choose to focus their rage in terrible ways and at innocent scapegoats. The film really makes you believe that Shaun could fall into this crowd and shows how the initially positive skinhead movement could become so perverted. It’s a fascinating look at a strange and often dark sub-culture I knew little about before I saw it. Visually, the film isn’t overly impressive. The film’s look is competent throughout, but rarely rises above the level of average throughout. Still the power of this story and these performances is enough for me to strongly recommend the film to those looking for a challenging film about race, sub-cultures, and a coming of age story.