“Are you gonna buy that?”
To prepare for This Is England ’90, I started where it all began: This Is England. I’ve seen it several times before. But for the most part, it’s always a film I can go back to. Of course, with all of the media attention on the so-called ‘migrant crisis,’ the film is still topical. Every time I watch it, it resonates with the news of the day, be it the BNP or UKIP. It tackles the themes of growing up and racism in the era of the Thatcher’s Britain, the National Front, skinheads and Space Invaders. It’s critically acclaimed, and I heartily agree with all the plaudits the film was given. However, there are moments when the façade falls, and it feels like an A-Level drama performance. Regardless of those moments, it is a film that needs and begs to be seen. Once viewed, never forgotten, from the innocent beginning to the brutal ending.
Before we even get a date, we know what era we are in. There’s a montage of scenes, from Space Invaders to Princess Diana’s wedding to Regan and Thatcher. We follow a young boy, Shawn, whose father was killed in the Falklands War. He’s listening to the radio after the montage, where Thatcher is on the radio, saying that a socialist state will destroy the future for the young. At school, an older pupil makes a joke about Shawn’s dad. Shawn attacks the lad. He bumps into Woody and his gang on the way home, and becomes part of the gang. When Combo, an ex-convict, enters the scene, the innocence fades. Combo is convinced that immigration needs to stop, and Shawn joins him in his quest…
“This is England, this is England and this is f**kin’ England”
Shawn has lots of fun with Woody’s gang, like smashing up abandoned houses. However, Combo arrives on the scene in a moment of sheer terror for the gang. A man wielding a machete interrupts a house party and threatens the group. He’s actually Banjo, a man Combo did his jail time with, but the group don’t know that. Combo’s entrance reduces the terror, but increases the tension in the air. It’s obvious that he is bad news. He’s a sign that the group’s youthful and innocent joy is about to be destroyed.
Combo (played by Stephen Graham) is without a doubt the star of the show. Exuding pathos and anger, he encapsulates all of the negatives of the 1980s: low unemployment, rising immigration, and bleak times for the working class. Right from his first scene, he’s grabs your attention, and doesn’t let it go until his final scene. He’s a brooding psychopath who’s boiling with rage, and Graham plays him brilliantly. “Three and a half million unemployed,” he repeats on several occasions. He blames immigrants for all England’s ill. They are (to paraphrase Combo) given a corner and a shop as soon as they arrive, while ‘English’ people are kicked to the curb.
“We’re not racists, we’re realists”
It’s his relationship with Shawn that transforms the story. Thomas Turgoose as Shawn is almost as impressive as Graham; he’s the main character, a child growing up in the desolate 1980s. He’s the father figure that Shawn needs, and Shawn will do anything that Combo deems is ‘good.’ The scene where Combo trains Shawn to go into the corner shop and abuse the Pakistani owner is chilling, even though Shawn is laughing his head off. The scene where he fulfils his training is even more chilling. Combo manipulates Shawn, telling Shawn that his dad died for nothing in the “pathetic” Falklands war. “She lied,” Combo says, referring to Thatcher. It’s this relationship that gives the film a spark (a violent one at that). Of course, without a father, Shawn is without a purpose, just like England was without a purpose in the 80s. And Combo/racism is there to fill in the gaps.
This searing commentary on the 80s (and our own times) is undermined at times by the acting and the dialogue. In particular, the relationship between Smell and Shawn is laughably terrible and cringeworthy. The other actors, with the exception of Woody and Lol, act and sound as if they are straight out of A-Level Performance Studies. It detracts, rather than adds, to the gritty realism of the film. They speak lines without confidence, falter and ramble on (in what appears to be attempts at improvisation), and generally bring the film down. They only serve to enhance the astounding performances of Turgoose and Graham.
“It’s not my fault, I didn’t mean it”
However, the two actors do enough to take our minds off the middling performances of the supporting actors and actresses. Not only that, but the direction and photography are stunning. We are shown run down council estates, empty sea shores, graffiti-ridden walls; all the trimming of working class existence. It’s a film that depicts the bleakness of Thatcher’s Britain without rubbing our faces in it. It’s dripping in the 1980s without drowning in it. There’s little hope in the scenery, in the location, or in the dialogue. The much-promised prosperity of privatisation hasn’t reached the place or the people; they are suffering in silence.
This Is England is a flawed film, no doubt about it. But it’s exploration of the skinhead culture, and racism in general, is definitely an eye-opener. It’s propelled forward by two stellar performances from Graham and Turgoose. Their relationship is the key to the whole story. Shawn, like working class England, has been cast aside, and gravitates towards racism to fill his emptiness. Powerful and haunting despite the awful supporting cast, This Is England is a film that demands to be watched. To be confronted by extreme racism is difficult. But This Is England tries to understand the racism without excusing it. Whether or not it does is up to the viewer. But it’s scary to think how similar Combo’s wishes are to, say, Nigel Farage’s…
VERDICT: 8/10. A film of our times about the times of yesteryears. Dragged down by a poor supporting cast, This Is England is carried by two lead performances that deserve endless praise. Brutal, powerful, bleak, necessary.