Few writer-helmers have stuck more religiously with the advice to film what they know — using the people they know — than self-taught Brit filmmaker Shane Meadows. Like his five previous pics (including the recent “Dead Man’s Shoes”), Meadows’ “This Is England” employs a regular ensemble of cast and crew to investigate working-class culture and masculinity using both humor and violence. However, with its knockout lead perfs and taut if slightly familiar construction, this ’80s-set dramedy about a skinhead gang reps Meadows’ most fluently made film so far. Still, “England” will need strong critical support to get more than limited exposure beyond Blighty.
Publicity material reveals story is largely autobiographical. Like central character Shaun (non-pro Thomas Turgoose), Meadows himself joined a skinhead gang as a young teen in the early ’80s, at a time when the youth movement was experiencing a resurgence before it became a byword for racist thuggery.
Pic accurately shows that there were many Afro-Caribbean skinheads back then whose influence made affection for vintage ska (a kind of reggae music) one of the defining factors of skinhead culture.
Set quite specifically in July 1983, just a little over a year after the end of the Falklands War, pic sticks closely to the point of view of 11- or 12-year-old Shaun, who lives in an unnamed, rundown seaside town somewhere between town of Grimsby in Yorkshire County and the suburbs of Nottingham (both rep locations used). His soldier father was killed in the Falklands and Shaun now lives with his well-meaning mum Cynth (Jo Hartley).
One day, Shaun, who looks much younger than his years, stands up for himself when a gang of teenage skinheads tease him, thereby winning their respect, especially that of leader Woody (Joe Gilgun). Other members of the gang include Woody’s g.f. Lol (Vicky McClure), who gives Shaun his first skinhead haircut once he’s accepted as a member, and black teen Milky (Andrew Shim, who played the title character in Meadows’ “A Room for Romeo Brass”).
Midsection gently unspools several charming, nicely played scenes and montages of the mixed gang of girls and boys just hanging out together or getting into mischief. In one segment that perfectly captures the unembarrassed directness of youth, Shaun enjoys his first French kiss with Smell (Rosamund Hanson) who makes herself up to look like popstar Boy George.
However, when much older skin Combo (Stephen Graham, who was in “Gangs of New York” and gives a dazzling perf here) arrives on the scene fresh from prison, the gang fractures into two groups, with Woody leading one and the racist Combo, a supporter of the neo-fascist org the National Front, in charge of the other.
Won over by Combo’s powers of persuasion, Shaun joins his faction, finding in him a surrogate father figure (as did lead characters in Meadows’ earlier efforts, “Romeo Brass” and “24/7”).
Plot moves on fixed rail lines toward a too-predictable conclusion. But Meadows draws such fresh and engaging perfs from his cast, as usual a mix of pro- and non-pros who collaborated on the script via a long rehearsal and workshop process, that it’s easy to overlook plot’s schematic design.
Utterly natural onscreen, his puggish face a map of flickering emotions, young Turgoose proves a real find and blossoms under Meadows’ direction. Once again, helmer demonstrates an extraordinary ability to coax great work from younger, inexperienced thesps.
Pic reps Meadows’ first period film, and production and costume design offers a spot on rendition of the era in general and the specific skinhead look back then, right down to the girls’ miniskirts, Cynth’s poodle perm, and the men’s Ben Sherman button-down shirts and Doc Martens boots.
Presumably, a big chunk of pic’s low-budget would have been spent on buying in its cracking soundtrack of vintage ska and early ’80s pop tunes. Opening montage, for instance, of archive footage summarizing the period (images of Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands war, rioting miners and so on) is cut on a dime to Toots and the Maytals’ classic ska track “54 46 Was My Number,” kicking pic off to a fine start.
Lensing on 16mm by Danny Cohen, a regular Meadows’ collaborator, adds a smoky, hazy vibe and recalls pics of the period, particularly the films of Alan Clarke like “Made in Britain.” Sound recording by Dave Sansom is crisp, although offshore and even non-Northern British viewers may have trouble understanding characters’ broad Midland and Yorkshire accents.