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August 8-14, 2007

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'This Is England'

Talk to the knuckles: Thomas Turgoose plays a pint-size skinhead in 'This Is England.'

Goon Squad

Benign skinheads meet race and class reality in Shane Meadows' 'This Is England'

By Richard von Busack


CINEMA FUNCTIONS as a time machine, and there are times when you want to put your foot through the control panel. The dial suddenly reads "1983"; the passenger screams in horror and scrabbles at the emergency hatch. It all comes back at once: Charles and Di, riding in their golden carriage and looking like they're both yearning for a stiff drink; sheep farming in the Falklands, curse you, Baroness Thatcher ...

In This Is England, by the neorealist Midlands director Shane Meadows (TwentyFourSeven), it is July of that bad year. The British Army is currently risking all against the Argies, out where only merinos dare to tread. Our wee protagonist, Shaun (Thomas "Tommo" Turgoose), has just been orphaned in that immemorial war; he's 13 and looks like he's 10. In his housing complex in the north of England, Shaun is frequently thrashed at school. In a concrete underpass, Shaun is picked up by a friendly group of skinheads who add him to the gang. They shave his skull, tattoo his knuckle with a cross and buy him suspenders and a Ben Sherman shirt. Fortunately, this is the most benign gang since the Seven Dwarfs. The leader, Woody (Joe Gilgun), is practically a pacifist; the dim but sweet Smell (Rosamund Hanson) soon becomes Shaun's girlfriend (the disparity in age and size between them is drastic—a few inches from pedophilia). These skins strut a little in slo-mo, but they mostly lounge peacefully at cafes. They're even integrated; Milky (Andrew Shim), who is called that because he's black, is a charter member of the group.

Then, as in every juvenile-delinquent movie, these ordinary kids meet a rougher, harder case: Combo (Stephen Graham) is just out of jail, where he was indoctrinated with the nationalist racism that we all unfairly associate with the baldies. He divides the group and takes the harder core to a National Front rally at a rural pub. Under his influence, Shaun participates in the looting of a Pakistani-run convenience store. And Combo menaces Lol (Vicky McClure) who drunkenly spent one night with him three years before.

The film has its problems; it's a semiautobiographical tale in which the authentic parts seem to stick out from more trumped-up sequences. As a film, it's basically a slow-speed journey to the inevitable act of violence. Eager not to pump up the film, for fear of it being misread as pro-bully, Meadows deflates the action. For instance, Ludovico Einaudi's piano threnodies on the soundtrack resemble the classical music that liquor-store owners broadcast to shoo away loitering punks. All these failings are mitigated by Meadow's excellent nonpro cast, recruited from acting workshops. The nonprofessionals give a sense of forlorn place and time. This Is England offers a history lesson to remind us of how, in hard times, larger smoother political thugs manipulate smaller rougher more confused thugs. A party functionary's speech in a pub is an accurate version of how politicians brayed in those days, back when race war was used to diffuse the force of class war. Graham's performance as the deluded leader is nothing but authentic. Turgoose, as man-child and child-man, vividly shows us what it's like to be a drifter in the world of hurt.


Movie Times This Is England (Unrated; 98 min.), directed and written by Shane Meadows, photographed by Danny Cohen and starring Thomas Turgoose, opens Aug. 10 at Camera 12 in San Jose.


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