THIS IS ENGLAND written and directed by Shane Meadows, with Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham and Joe Gilgun. An Alliance release. 102 minutes. Opens Friday (November 9). Rating: NNNNN
Oi, you've got to be flippin' fearless to call your film This Is England. But self-made upstart Shane Meadows (Dead Man's Shoes) gets away with it in this gritty and unpredictable shocker.
The setting is 1983 in a coastal town in northern England that's been beaten economically and socially by Margaret Thatcher and demoralized by the Falklands War.
Twelve year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a tough little sparkplug with a child's body but a wizened, older man's face that's clearly seen hard times. His dad was killed in the war, and he's ostracized at school for that - and for the fact that he wears flared pants.
During a scene that bristles with humour and danger, he's befriended by a group of local skinheads who take him on as a junior member. He gets his head shaved and shops for Doc Martens and the standard-issue Ben Sherman shirt and suspenders.
His mom's not pleased with his transformation, but she gives in to the group's leader, Woody (Joe Gilgun), who makes a pretty decent substitute father figure for the boy. That is, until Combo (Stephen Graham), the gang's live wire alpha male, is released from prison with some new ideas about how immigrants are taking over the country.
Meadows, a former skinhead himself, captures the two schools of the movement with precision: the early one that banded around working-class issues and reggae music, and the later one, which was more violent and intolerant, making members susceptible to the xenophobia of the rising National Front Party.
The script is spiked with surprises. Combo wrestles the group's members away with a mangled line from Henry V, and preys on his fellow skinheads' sense of disempowerment to get them to follow him. A scene between Shaun and an immigrant shopkeeper receives a disturbing coda near the end.
Throughout, Meadows has total control over the film's tone, which benefits from a raucous soundtrack and sensitive performances by the cast of mostly unknowns.
The social landscape of England's changed a lot in 20 years, but many of the conflicts in the film are still around today. And there's another war going on.