This is England.

‘This is England’ shows us an England that is only occasionally glimpsed in cinema.’ Discuss, illustrating your answer with close analysis of the film and with reference to relevant critical writing.

 

The BAFTA award-winning This is England (2006)[1], is a hard-hitting, eye-opening depiction of urban England within the 1980s and is one of a small minority of films that is able to convey, with such brutal authenticity, the extremities of particular sub-cultures within a contemporary society. It is a film that offers rare glimpses and insights into English life, incorporating social realism on a scale that previous British filmmakers may have chosen to pass on.  Throughout the past few years within British cinema, there have been a vast amount of other films that have seemed to have lifted particular aspects from this film because of the way director Shane Meadows was able to defy convention by creating a film that portrays an England that isn’t about the monarchy, fish and chips or pots of tea. Meadows created a film that is only seen nowadays, sadly, through the independent film industry and also echoes films such as Fernando Merielles’ powerful film City of God (2002)[2] as it is able to tackle such a troubled and fragmentary political and social landscape, from the perspective of suffering youths.

The Guardian film critic, Peter Bradshaw, wrote of the film at its time of cinematic release that, “…there’s no doubt that Meadows is a real film-maker with a growing and evolving career and with his own natural cinematic language. When I think of his films, I think, for good or ill; this is English Cinema.”[3] To determine how far British cinema has come throughout the past three decades it is safe to compare this particular film to those such as Letters to Brezhnev (1985)[4] Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988)[5] and Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985[6]). All of these films incorporate societal problems within their narratives, focusing on the economic slump of the 1980s, the deprivation of jobs, the issues of race relations as well as the division of the English class system. However, these films merely touch the surface as Meadows takes the extremities of these issues to a completely different level. In Hollywood, their depictions of England is that of a stereotypical agenda, romanticised with iconic images such as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. In This is England, we are in Midlands in 1983 following the story of Shaun, a fatherless young boy in need of guidance.

The film begins with a long montage of fast cutting clips of every key event that occurred within or related to 1980s England, from the Royal Wedding to the mining strikes. Here we know we are about to watch a film that emphasises its cultural, social and political landscape, stating the importance of the contextual background surrounding the film and how everything that is happening within the country is seeming to mould the younger generation for the worse, more significantly the future trajectory of Shaun. His character epitomises the youth of his time; naïve, vulnerable, yet another child apart of the ‘fatherless nation’ of having recently lost his father to the conflict of the Falklands War. For the director, to have an impressionable young actor in Thomas Turgoose at the epicentre of his narrative, is a rarity in itself within both independent and mainstream cinema as we are seeing such graphic events unfold through the eyes of a child. We can see how destructive certain ideologies can be especially knowing that Shaun is being constantly exposed to so much racial tension, violence and aggression at such a tender pre-pubescent age.

We gain a true sense of the background surrounding Shaun as we see him walking to school. Through the use of panning we see the dilapidated buildings, derelict businesses covered with graffiti with various obscenities aimed towards the Thatcherite government. Andrew Higson writing about the progress of English filmmaking from the 1990s to the early 2000s wrote, “For others, it was less about business and more about cultural and social engagement, whether this was conceived in terms of entertaining audiences, or developing ideas and views of the world in which we live.”[7] Here the view of Shaun’s world is signifies through the setting as it corresponds with the attitude of the people living within this era; impoverished and out of work. Struggling to cope with the loss of his father, Shaun is living within a scenario in which he is trying to uphold some form of strength to defend his father’s honour but also the life of which he and his mother now have to live. His clothing is simple with a blue tracksuit jacket covering a red shirt and also having to deal with being ridiculed on the playground for wearing a large pair of flared pants signifying the financial constraints his mother is under by buying her son only what she can afford.

At this point in the film, Shaun has not made the transition in becoming a certified ‘skinhead’ however he is still foul mouthed to those of conventional power and authority, those being adults and members of staff within his school but significantly the Asian shop owner he faces within the opening sequence of the film. There is clear tension between the two characters as Shaun enters the shop and proceeds to pick up a comic and begins to read it along with quick cutting from the giggles of Shaun to the annoyance of the shopkeeper. He then becomes increasingly tired with the young boy’s ignorance and foul language when he is asked to leave resulting in him banning the boy from his shop. From this, Meadows is establishing a clear division between generations, age groups and ethnic backgrounds that is hardly glimpsed within British cinema as we are experiencing a young boy displaying total degenerate behaviour with essences of complete intimidation that later escalates further on within the film.

On his way home from a disastrous day at school, Shaun meets a brash and outlandish gang under a bridge. David Forrest in an essay regarding the production of This Is England stated that, “A focus on marginalised young protagonists, disconnected from their environments and searching haplessly for meaning and structure in their lives, broadly unites the filmmakers and subsequently defines the thematic preoccupations of contemporary British realism.”[8] From this we can analyse the way that they are all dressed, displaying an anarchic sensibility that was exposed to youths around this particular time. Early on within the film we see Shaun’s initiation into the gang. Woody, Milky, Pukey and Gadget are all dressed in similar attire wearing Ben Sherman checked shirts with dungaree strappings, denim jeans and black imposing Doc Marten boots finished with completely shaven heads to connote a certain uniformity in their cause of rebelling against state. The significance of costume is there to convey how disenfranchised young people were within the 1980s and by choosing to dress in such a reactionary way, it shows that they are not conforming to the conventional view of how to behave within society, again showing children revolting on such a mass scale has never been shown authentically on screen before, and by showing children behaving in such a way it adds to the overall shock that an audience may reflect upon when viewing this scene.

The central themes of the film are primarily those of asserting one’s masculinity, power and social dominance and also how blurred the lines are with regard to national identity and pride. When we encounter the character Combo for the first time, released after a lengthy prison sentence, we know from this point on that the film is delving deeper into the crux of one of England’s problems; violence and rising racial tensions resulting in xenophobia. Combo himself is extremely offensive through his use of language and preferred ideologies. Onscreen, he is always framed at the centre of every shot he is in as he soon becomes the negative powerhouse of the film, as he divides friendships and allegiances within the group. Throughout the film he is wearing a white shirt which symbolizes his stance of being a member of the National Front and obviously bearing extremely racist views, seeming to believe that the modern day white man is suffering due to the rise of migrant workers opting to live and work within the country.

With regards to the notion that This is England presents us with an England that is only glimpsed within cinema, it seems that this is no longer the case as since the success of this particular film, there has been a surge within the British film industry that are now choosing to produce projects with a similar tone and message. Films such as ‘Harry Brown’[9], ‘Kidulthood’[10] and ‘Bullet Boy’[11] are all productions that are specifically there to depict an England whereby they are brutally honest in handling the context of the financial crisis, crime rates and sadly still, race relations within modern England. British dramas such as Harry Brown are one of a few recent films that match This Is England in terms of raw tenacity and truth in its content of portraying England for what it shockingly can be. However, the latter film is one that features the turbulent rise of youth-driven anarchy whereas Harry Brown sees an elderly man battling to survive within his own community within an England set in the modern day where the young are displayed as symbols of terror and intimidation, not one of independence and political rebellion. Both films explore and extend themes that are only primarily glimpsed or not even explored completely within British cinema as films prior to that merely used these events as backdrops to such films like the hugely romanticized Love Actually[12] and Bridget Jones[13] franchise that only evoke the stereotypical elements of the country that are instantly relatable to many other countries around the world.

Looking at the film through a political lens, This is England from the onset ensures that the narrative is structured around the overarching events that are occurring on a daily basis. Tim Snelson and Emma Sutton wrote of England within the 1980s, stating, “In Meadows’ film, subcultural youth collectively is a strategy that Conservative policies has created while countering the Thatcherite ideology of individualism.”[14] The hostility towards Margaret Thatcher is prevalent throughout all aspects of Meadows filmmaking; the diegetic sound of the prime minister’s speech on the radio with that being the unwelcoming sound that awakes Shaun within the very first scene of the film. Meadows through his cinematography implies an emptiness within the wider exterior shots of the Midlands when Shaun and the rest of the gang are causing havoc within derelict buildings within the community such as derelict buildings, smashing the insides with bats resulting in laughter and boisterous banter between the group. The fact that the gang are so free to the extent that they are able to run in and out of various abandoned buildings, speaks volumes about the level of authority and lack of control that is clearly not apparent within their community.

The film reaches its darkest points when Shaun chooses to join Combo over Woody. Here we can see how corrupted Shaun has become because of the air of delusion created by Combo with his extremist and nationalistic views and opinions. What follows is one of many crucial scenes that portray how sickening Combo is willing to be in order to invoke his methods by trying to ‘make England, English again.’ The first scene is Shaun entering the same newsagents of which he was barred from within the opening sequence of the film. At first there is just silence between both him and the shop owner in which we see them exchange harsh glances to one another, building tension as the camera cuts back and to. Outrageously Shaun asks, when clearly underage, for various brands of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages to which the shop owner ridicules the request. Shaun reacts angrily and calls the man a racial slur and to the man’s amazement and shock he asks him, “What did you just call me?” Shaun then repeats the insult resulting in the shop owner man-handling Shaun and proceeds to throw him out of the shop until Combo bursts into the scene wielding a machete shouting even more horrific racial obscenities. Here this level of racism sparks a shocking image of a Neo-Nazi attitude within the skinhead subculture. The idea of Nazi-styled ideologies merging within a niche part of English society is indeed an extremely bleak and frightening one to comprehend, especially onscreen.

The claiming of one’s territory is an emphatic theme throughout the film also, and is again relevant to the ideals that the gang possess regarding the Anglo-skinhead subculture. However, as Sarah N. Petrovic writes, “The film uses its representation of physical space to represent the internal experience of Shaun, and perhaps by extension, English society…”[15] Earlier within the film we see how lonely Shaun’s world is as he aimlessly wonders around the town. Through a montage of shots we see him riding his bike through an abandoned car park, eating a bag of sweets in a derelict rowing boat within a field and shooting various targets with his slingshot. This indeed implies a certain loneliness within our young protagonist as Petrovic writes further in regard to these particular shots, “Each [shot] constitutes a tiny fragment of the physical space of Shaun’s day […] No other people exist in this world, highlighting Shaun’s isolation. He [16]is aimless but longing for direction, for somewhere to go, something to do, something to unify the fragments.” Again, this shows how the film allows us a rare glimpse into the mind of a young boy as he aims to tackle such adversity in the wake of his father’s death, at first it would appear for the worse but as the final scene of the film shows, we see Shaun on the beach through an array of stylish long, aerial and close-up shots of him walking towards the sea equipped with the English flag of St. George. Alongside a sombre and deeply emotional score we see Shaun throw the flag into the sea, with the image of the flag floating away from him, telling the audience that the boy is tired of all the aggression and violence that has clouded his young yet-still evolving mind. He wants to be rid of all hate that has caused so much pain and also the loss of loved ones. In all, Shane Meadows has created an English piece of cinema that is a film that was rarely seen within English cinema prior to its production that being a story filled with hate, anger, loss, friendship and love told through the eyes and mind of a twelve year old boy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Bradshaw, P. (2007). This Is England. The Guardian, [online] p.1. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/apr/27/drama2 [Accessed 8 Apr. 2015].

Forrest, D. (2015). Twenty-first-Century Social Realism: Shane Meadows and New British Realism. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh University Press, p.35.

Higson, A. (2011). Film England. London: I.B. Tauris.

Petrovic, S. (2015). Changing Spaces of ‘Englishness’: Psychogeography and Spatial Practices in This Is England and Somers Town. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh University Press, p.131.

Snelson, T. and Sutton, E. (2013). A Message to You, Maggie: 1980s Skinhead Subculture and Music in This Is England. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh Unversity Press, p.113.

Filmography:

Bullet Boy. (2004). England: dir. by Saul Dibb.

Bridget Jone’s Diary. (2001). England: dir. by Sharon Maguire.

City of God. (2002). Brazil: dir. by Fernando Meirelles.

Harry Brown. (2009). England:  dir. by Daniel Barber.

High Hopes. (1988). England: dir. by Mike Leigh.

Kidulthood. (2006). England: dir. by Menhaj Huda.

Letters to Brezhnev. (1985). England: dir. by Chris Bernard.

Love Actually. (2003). England: dir. by Richard Curtis.

My Beautiful Laundrette. (1985). [film] England: Stephen Frears.

This Is England. (2006). [film] England: Shane Meadows.

 

Word Count: 2, 689.

 

 

 

 

[1] This Is England. (2006). [film] England: Shane Meadows.

[2] City of God. (2002). [film] Brazil: Fernando Meirelles.

[3] Bradshaw, P. (2007). This Is England. The Guardian, [online] p.1. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/apr/27/drama2 [Accessed 8 Apr. 2015].

[4] Letters to Brezhnev. (1985). [film] England: Chris Bernard.

[5] High Hopes. (1988). [film] England: Mike Leigh.

[6] My Beautiful Laundrette. (1985). [film] England: Stephen Frears.

[7] Higson, A. (2011). Film England. London: I.B. Tauris.

[8] Forrest, D. (2015). Twenty-first-Century Social Realism: Shane Meadows and New British Realism. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh University Press, p.35.

[9] Harry Brown. (2009). [film] England: Daniel Barber.

[10] Kidulthood. (2006). [film] England: Menhaj Huda.

[11] Bullet Boy. (2004). [film] England: Saul Dibb.

[12] Love Actually. (2003). [film] England: Richard Curtis.

[13] Bridget Jone’s Diary. (2001). [film] England: Sharon Maguire.

[14] Snelson, T. and Sutton, E. (2013). A Message to You, Maggie: 1980s Skinhead Subculture and Music in This Is England. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh Unversity Press, p.113.

[15] Petrovic, S. (2015). Changing Spaces of ‘Englishness’: Psychogeography and Spatial Practices in This Is England and Somers Town. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh University Press, p.131.

[16] Petrovic, S. (2015). Changing Spaces of ‘Englishness’: Psychogeography and Spatial Practices in This Is England and Somers Town. In: M. Fradley, S. Godfrey and M. Williams, ed., Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, 1st ed. Edinburgh University Press, p.131.

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