A hair's breadth from greatness

Evocative slice of skinhead life gets bogged down in worn symbolism

<strong>This Is England (18)</

It's a disconcerting experience when you sit down to watch a period piece, only to find that the period in question coincides with your own adolescence. So This Is England gets a black mark straight off the bat for making this viewer feel so old (as if the grey hairs, expanding waistline and long, dark nights of the soul weren't enough on their own).

The film's opening montage of Roland Rat, Rubik's Cubes and Knight Rider promises a cinematic I y 1983, which is no one's idea of a good time. What a relief to find this promise broken when the nostalgia trip is corrupted by images from National Front marches and the miners' strike, turning a saunter down memory lane into a prowl on the dark side.

Shaun (the stunning newcomer Thomas Turgoose) is a 12-year-old scamp living with his mother, Cynthia (Jo Hartley). Shaun's father was killed in the Falklands, and now the boy plods through life with an overcast expression that can turn sunny after a quick read of the Beano.

A group of local skinheads, led by the gangly Woody (Joe Gilgun), takes pity on Shaun and sprinkles magic over his blighted life. Woody knows how to have fun: he organises fancy-dress gatherings in the rain, and leads his band of merry men and lost boys into acts of gleeful vandalism at a derelict house. When one of the gang has his feelings hurt, Woody even orchestrates a group hug.

This isn't a portrait of skinhead life that we've seen before. There are strong, lively women here, and an easygoing African-Caribbean "rude boy" (Andrew Shim) whose name, Milky, evokes unhappy memories of "Chalky White", the butt of Jim Davidson's gags on prime-time TV.

These early scenes have a mild euphoria about them, as though Huckleberry Finn had pitched up in the Midlands. It can't last. Woody's National Front-supporting pal Combo (Stephen Graham) is fresh out of prison and looking for trouble, forcing Shaun to choose between these opposing figureheads of skinhead culture.

The real trouble with this film derives from the writer-director, Shane Meadows. He has his heart set on making a state-of-the-nation address, as suggested by that sweeping title, but his most confident work is in the film's first half, where he captures with effortless lyricism the feeling of being young and bored in summer. He isn't skilful enough yet to pull off the transition to weightier matters, and the picture soon becomes bogged down in social comment and symbolism. Any minute now, I kept thinking, someone's going to do something frightfully meaningful with that St George's flag. And so they do.

Another problem is the use of Combo as the catalyst for Shaun's, and England's, loss of innocence. He is a paper tiger, a character who is not fit to lace the DMs of those two complex screen skinheads, Tim Roth's Trevor in Made in Britain (1982) and Gary Oldman's Coxy in Meantime (1984). If only Meadows had unexpectedly made Woody a mouthpiece for racist views, rather than the instantly repellent Combo, the picture would have been more subtle in its delineation of right and wrong.

While This Is England is steeped in home-grown imagery, it conforms to an American style of storytelling best described as the "things-were-never-the-same-after-that-summer" film, in which a naive teenager encounters the adult world, usually in the shape of sex (Summer of '42) or death (Stand By Me), and gets a crash course in maturity. Shaun is a changed lad in the film's last shot, but we know life isn't really like that. Few people have a single experience that alters them for ever; we are works in progress, as shown when Cynthia charges into a café determined to give the gang members a ticking-off for shaving her son's head, only to end up warming to them. This Is England elicits the opposite reaction, initial admiration turning to final disappointment. Meadows does a vivid job of bringing the Eighties to life, but his attempt to make an insightful statement about England ultimately fails.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover