A coming-of-age choice with evil in the balance

Posted: August 17, 2007

Set in the Midlands of Britain in the summer of 1983 and scored to the exhilarating reggae bounce of Toots and the Maytals, This Is England is a classic coming-of-age story.

Shane Meadows' semiautobiographical film, The 400 Blows, is as timely today in any inner city as it was a quarter of a century ago in Yorkshire, where unemployment and restlessness were high.

Historically, Yorkshire is Robin Hood country. But the skinheads of England don't want to steal from the rich to give to the poor. They come in two flavors, those who brutalize private property to let off some steam and those who brutalize immigrant Jamaicans and Pakistanis who, they perceive, have deprived them of jobs and pride.

Enter Shaun (snaggletoothed Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old spitfire who has lost his dad in the Falklands war. On the last day of school, he gets ragged on for wearing flares and trades punches with the kid who teased him.

The impressionable boy is befriended by charismatic skinheads led by Woody (Joe Gilgun) who adopt Shaun as their mascot. They shave his head so that it looks like a fist, dress him in Ben Sherman shirts, suspenders and Doc Martens, and all march the streets like Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange.

For Woody and the guys, who include an affable Jamaican named Milky (Andrew Shim), not having jobs is an opportunity to hang out, listen to music, smoke. And should they have a spell of excess energy, they can always take hammers to abandoned apartments.

Their idyll ends when Combo (Stephen Graham), an ex-con, rejoins the gang, bringing with him the racist hate he learned in prison. Combo's ferocity appeals to Shaun, who stays under his wing as the rest of the members fly off with Woody's flock.

Meadows makes a distinction between the slacker skinheads, with their love of West Indian music, and the overwrought neo-Nazi nationalists that terrorize immigrants. As these two different groups fight for Shaun's allegiance, the fatherless 12-year-old makes his first moral decision. Does he want to be son of racially pure England or kid brother in the family of man?

Until the final scene of Meadows' edgy, uneasy film, the suspense is killing.


This Is England ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Shane Meadows, distributed by IFC Films. With Thomas Turgoose, Joe Gilgun and Stephen Graham.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Parent's guide: R (racist violence and epithets)

Playing at: The Ritz Five


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.

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