Powerful "This Is England" a hard look at human destruction
Special to The Seattle Times
"This Is England," with Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham. Written and directed by Shane Meadows.
102 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains rough language, violence).
The human cost of the Falklands War has rarely been dramatized as powerfully as it is in Shane Meadows' "This Is England." It may be the best work to date from the talented 34-year-old writer-director of "Twenty Four Seven" (1997).
Set in Northern England in the summer of 1983, the movie follows a resourceful 12-year-old boy, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), whose soldier-father died in the 1982 conflict that seems increasingly remote and difficult to justify. His mother can't make up for the loss, and Shaun becomes a mascot to a gang of aimless vandals and potential father figures.
They shave their heads, trash abandoned homes, use graffiti to suggest their contempt for Margaret Thatcher, and eventually get seduced by the racist propaganda of a neo-Nazi group. Not all of them, of course: One poor boy is abandoned on a remote country road when he dares to challenge the herd mentality.
The film's title comes from an anti-immigration rant by Combo, a spectacularly destructive ex-con (shockingly well-played by Stephen Graham), who adopts any prejudice that suits him at the moment. Graham gives the kind of scary yet strangely sympathetic performance that transcends arguments about nature vs. nurture. He simply is what he is: a human black hole who threatens to obliterate everything that comes into contact with him.
At first Shaun sees Combo as a father figure, potentially replacing his absent parent, but their alliance has nowhere to go. The occasional glimpses of Combo's sensitivity are overwhelmed by his violent nature.
Shaun, on the other hand, is capable of growing and changing. He may be in over his head when a girl kisses him passionately — she tells him he makes out like a middle-age man — but in each scene he's learning and adapting to fresh, if not always welcome, circumstances.
Turgoose's performance, driven by the young actor's energy and a continuous sense of discovery, is a small miracle. The character is based on Meadows' experiences as a skinhead — an identity he adopted, like Shaun, in order to keep older, bigger bullies away.
This uncompromising coming-of-age tale ends with an act of defiance and hard-won maturity. It demonstrates — in a single, chilling, bittersweet gesture — that Shaun can no longer be identified as a child.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company