Sunday, July 19, 2009

This is England (DVD, 2006)

A surprise from Netflix in the arrival of Shane Meadow's This is England. I think I rented it because it was set near where I grew up in Yorkshire, England, and set only about seven years after. I expected it to be grim, unrelenting and kitchen-sinky (and I was right) but I didn't expect it to be so nuanced.

A 12 year old whose father has been killed in the Falklands war is accepted by a group of older skinheads. The group is all about belonging, and that's what the fatherless kid is looking for. One of the gang is a rude boy, a West Indian. The gang is knocked apart when an older "original 1969 skin" is released from jail and deposes the leader.

This is where the film turns away from the expected path. Combo, the new leader, has correctly identified that his working class culture is being ripped apart and his traditional way of life consigned to the dustbin. There's a war on, many people are unemployed and the future is dark and unwelcoming.

Deep down he knows that the architect of this radical dismantling of society is Margaret Thatcher, but he makes a common error, or perhaps goes for the easier path - blaming instead the immigrants who are 'flooding' Britain and 'swamping' his society. He's at a personal disadvantage. He has no strong family ties - no father, no relatives to take him in. He, like the kid, needs to belong, and belonging in his case means joining the National Front. As an "original" skin, he's had West Indian friends before and undergoes a personal struggle on whether to accept the local skins' West Indian member as a friend.

Of course, this being a movie, all this complexity eventually collides with awful consequences. The 12 year old is resilient and probably young enough to recover and move on. Others are left dead or damaged. Excellent acting from Stephen Graham as Combo, and many other good performances to boot.

Much of the movie was familiar to me. The clothes they wear are the same - the cherry-red DMs, Ben Shermans, Crombies for dressing up. The 'innocent' fun - smashing up the abandoned houses in the northern wastelands - was a part of my friends' childhoods too. The Falklands war. The awful life-sapping voice and visage of Thatcher that was everywhere, grinding the country into little bits from which it's barely recovered. Of course my friends didn't have strange Liverpool and Lancashire accents, but you can't expect a movie to get everything right.

Here's a piece of music from the film. Louie Louie by Toots and the Maytals who, along with Lee "Scratch" Perry, Desmond Dekker and many other West Indian musicians, were regulars on northern turntables, skinhead or not.

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