Monday, February 3, 2014

The People of England

by Hannah Degner         
      A creation of writer-director Shane Meadows, This is England premiered in 2006 at the Toronto International Film Festival and swiftly rose to a height of recognition that independent filmmakers don’t admit to dreaming of. The film swept through England with a cultural resonance and critical acclaim that are still causing spin-offs today, before touring the international independent film circuit to receive the due appreciation of global audiences.
    Before watching This is England I had never uttered the word “skinhead” aloud. When I grasped for the sensations stored near it in my head, distaste overwhelmed me. The skinhead of my imagination was male with a cold smirk that promised irreparable damage and at least one swastika tattoo.     
    I could not have conceived of a world in which a skinned head is a complement to plaid shirts strapped down by suspenders, soul music you pop your collar to and intense, brotherly hugs enfolding young blokes with heavy British accents. In fact, this is not another world at all, the film convinces us. This is England just a few decades ago. 
    Like the work of many films that tackle something complicated and aim to stick with you, This is England added dimension to a loaded term by painting a vivid picture of the perhaps forgotten moment at which skinheads made a choice to be either hateful or irrelevant.
    We enter into a made-up coastal town in the middle of England, far enough from London not to be stylish in the least. The year is 1983 and, for the first ten minutes or so, everyone has a full head of hair. The first person we meet is Shaun. His hair is shaggy blonde and frames a sorrowful pug face with teeth that would make an orthodontist weep. Shaun is twelve and immediately understood to be the film’s protagonist, the one whose bleak world we’ll experience from roving close-ups of his face. I’ll be damned if that face doesn’t break open your heart and mend it back up a dozen times over the course of the film.
    When we meet Shaun, he has only recently lost his dad in the Falklands War and he’s going to school on out-of-uniform day wearing some righteously flared pants that we later find out are one of the last things his father bought for him. Unfortunately for Shaun, the fashion of England in 1983 is much closer to the style of today: pants are straight, usually Levis, and bell-bottoms are ridiculous. Still, perhaps because we first see him in this defeated place, passionately defending pants he hates to vapid bullies, Shaun endears. 
    The character himself is wholly real. His comments are uncontrived and seemingly ad libbed, derived from the finest nuances of the situation he’s in rather than the film’s plot or drive forward. The most disagreeable thing about beginning this film is watching as this bright light we’ve been guided towards in a bleak world is trampled. Undergoing one abuse after another, and feeling poignantly lost without a defendant, Shaun happens upon a group of dapper young men with shaved heads, cigarettes and unwrinkled button-downs pinned by suspenders.
    Shaun doesn’t even stop when he walks into this group. After all, they have friends and all he has are out-of-style pants. Woody, the leader who will appear more and more like a Peter to their Lost Boys, asks for Shaun to stop and give him five minutes to make him feel better—“You’re breaking me heart” is instituted here as Woody’s catchphrase. We exhale our concern as Shaun is finally appreciated as the sensitive, wisecracking boy he is by other wisecrackers of varying sensitivity. Shaun needs this group, and their leader is as good and harmless as a gangleader can be—instilling fear in Shaun only when jokingly impersonating the vicious dictator the younger boy expects him to be.
    They’re misfits for sure; they smoke and drink and sit under graffiti-marked bridges while their peers are sitting in class. But with the added dimension of dapper attire and caring intimacy that asks no more of the members than to beg a few beers when the time is right, they’re like no gang I’ve ever seen. And surely like no group of skinheads. As soon as Shaun gets his haircut, “Louie Louie” ushers in a slow-mo gang sequence. They walk as a pack, flip their collars, and take coordinated group dives into the local swimming pool, replete with floaties encircling arms and waists. There’s a sense of what everyone’s role is, and also a sense that they all enjoy each other. It’s a lot of fun.

    The film wants us to know that what we see is what skinheads often looked like in England up until the early 80s. The image itself was harmless, the attire of a more-fun-than-the-average group of people who wanted to be associated with each other and include those who are too interesting to be easily understood.
    Just when we’re all starting to relax, a man named Combo bursts into the party. Straight from jail, he barges in with everything that’s vaguely threatening about the skinhead image today. Combo is broken too, but in prison his pain led him to anger, and his anger led him to the early stages of the white power movement. We watch as Combo cleaves a gash right into the center of the group with the machete that’s too often clenched in his fist. Far older and thicker at 32 than the kids he claims a kinship with, he sits down the gang that he once led and riles himself up in a speech that no one expected, or quite understands. He tells of the struggle that their ancestors underwent so that they could stick a flag into the ground and say, “This is England.” He points to his heart, “and this is England,” and his head, “This is England.” His confidence seeps into the self-doubt that exists deep within the gang members; hate and conviction infect the group, confuse them. When Combo convinces Shaun that his father’s death can be avenged by joining the new, pro-England gang that he's forming, all is lost. The rest of the story belongs to Combo. After all, it’s easy to create an army from those already wearing a uniform.
    The question of how such a good natured boy as Shaun could so easily become persecuting, bullying, stealing is not one that needs to be asked when the time comes to be shocked by his behavior. Shaun might talk like an older boy and kiss girls half his age over “like a 40 year old man” but his unique magnetism does not change his age. He is a boy of 12 who lost his father, and here presented to him is a replacement, someone who likes him best and promises to fill the gaps in his life with new meaning.
     Interspersed with insensitivity and violence is Combo’s attempt to reach out and express love towards those he once knew. He is rebuffed time and again. His delicate teardrop tattoo, the kind people often have etched into the outer corner of their eye—curiously far from their tear ducts—when they reappear from prison, becomes increasingly prominent. The tear is frozen in a somber trickle until the film’s shocking end: a traumatic blowup that surprises both those involved and the viewer, to the extent that I still remind myself it happened and wonder how it could be so. The desperation of the dénouement at once concludes Combo’s anger and confusion and, for the first time, gets to the root of his sorrow.
    The ambiguity of the group’s motivation--bound up with what we learn about the pain of Combo that renders him lost and floundering--probes further than any aspect of the film. Like other stories that depict the nuances of human interaction and the side effects of bumping around in a rather diverse world, there’s no question of a hero and a villain. Instead, everyone is to blame here for what’s transpiring, and no one is. In this film, each player is sad, broken and lost, responding to impulses and seeking something more from each other than they find in themselves.
     In the end, it doesn’t matter why the shaved head became associated with this misguided swerve towards raging violence; this transition does not unfold logically because these things just don’t. Instead the shift takes place in small moments when hearts are broken and hate of oneself becomes far more difficult to feel than hate for those with a very different story.

Thirteen-year-old Thomas Turgoose had never acted
before his role as Shaun.

1 comment:

  1. Hannah,

    The piece opens crisply and clearly now. A great edit. DC