by Jeff Meyers
Written and directed by Shane Meadows. Starring Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim and Vicky McClure.
My God can this kid act. So authentic and emotionally immediate is neophyte Thomas Turgoose’s performance in This Is England, that one wonders if the 12-year old really knew he was being filmed. The give away, of course, is that Shane Meadows’wrenching semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1983 Yorkshire.
Cast as a lonely, lower-class schoolboy named Shaun, Turgoose is that rare child actor who can shed the artifice, precociousness and sentimentality endemic in his peers. Picked on at school, alienated from his mum, pining for his father who died in England’s senseless war in the Falklands, Turgoose’s raw energy perfectly captures Shaun’s prepubescent curiosity and impotent rage.
As a metaphor for England’s battered pride, the gullible but pugnacious Shaun is eager to find acceptance with anyone who’ll have him. One day, on his way home from school, he encounters a band of skinheads — a benignly disenfranchised group of teens willing to make him one of their own. More about music (ska and reggae), economic frustration and a vague sense of nationalism than neo-Nazi violence, even Afro-Caribbean teens sported shaved heads and Doc Martens in the early ’80s.
When the gang gets a surprise visit from brutish ex-con Combo (Stephen Graham) — who rails passionately against England’s immigrant population and weakening identity — the skinhead’s allegiances split and Shaun chooses to follow the charismatic thug. Seduced by his machismo and misguided convictions, Shaun gullibly adopts Combo’s hatred as his own, too young to understand the complexities and motivations of adult behavior.
Meadows does a terrific job of depicting how early skinhead subculture slowly became co-opted by the intensely racist National Front and transformed into the malicious movement it is today. In a well-crafted scene, middle-aged politicos cynically manipulate the childish rage of lower class bullies like Combo into intimidating England’s growing immigrant population.
Graham is magnetic as the insecure and demented Combo, a brute who constantly seeks to reinforce his masculinity. With Shaun he has found an empty bucket to pour his discontent into. And remarkably, as the boy absorbs each hateful act he still manages to retain an innocence that’s disturbingly real. Still a child, Shaun naively accepts Combo’s rants as gospel truth. He is, after all, an adult —something young Shaun craves to be, fueling a simultaneously charming and troubling relationship with an older “girlfriend.”
In many ways, This Is England’s content and style seem reminiscent of Ken Loaches’ work but the movie’s schematic storytelling suffers in comparison to Loaches’ blunt sense of drama. Despite Meadows knowing sophistication of character and social commentary, his film is disappointingly predictable and his rushed, too neat ending mars what could have otherwise been a minor masterpiece.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.