THIS IS ENGLAND Movie Review
Madness (Is All in the Mind): Is This Really England?
“But I've got one question to ask you. Do you consider yourself English, or Jamaican?”
A seemingly simple query, directed at a young Jamaican-born skinhead by the name of Milky by an elder statesman of the gang, comes spring-loaded with decades of hatred and resentment. Unbeknownst to Milky, his very life may hinge upon his response; luckily for him, he answered “correctly,” identifying himself as “English.” Now then, one must ask: what does that mean? No one really seems to know for sure. Ask anyone walking down the streets of London whether they consider themselves to be British, English, or something else altogether, and you’re sure to get a different response every time. Is Englishness imbued in any individual who happened to be born on this particular island in this particular sea, and a force in his character from the first breath he takes? Is it learned? Assumed? Chosen? Technically, a third-generation Bangladeshi who lives on Brick Lane is as English as Adam Walker, but which of them is more likely to see it as a source of pride? It’s a complex situation, and one the bears examination. Director Shane Meadows, one of England’s rising stars, explored the issue in his landmark film This is England, touching upon some of the very uncomfortable stereotypes and issues that plague English society in the process.
Milky, his gang of affable skinhead mates, and their adopted mascot, young Shaun, are the central characters in the gritty semi-biographical drama, which takes place in the English Midlands. Its protagonist, a scruffy social outcast by the name of Shaun, lives in a dingy little house with his mother and wakes up to a photo of his late father, a casualty of the Falklands War, each morning. One afternoon, on his way from a particularly rough day at school, Shaun stumbles across a bunch of good-natured skinheads, led by the charismatic Woody, who immediately take him under their wing and welcome him into their group. A freshly shaved head, brand-new Ben Sherman shirt, oxblood Docs, cuffed denims, braces, and an attitude adjustment – with a haircut, a trip to the shop, and a couple cans of lager, Shaun is transformed, and suddenly, he’s found himself a place in the world. He even gets a girlfriend – the unfortunately nicknamed Smell, an older punk/new-wave type, who shows him genuine, if slightly bemused, affection. Newly empowered by his army of benevolent, though slightly rough, companions, and armed with his mother’s blessing, Shaun enters the happiest period of his life. Everything changes, though, once Combo comes to town. Racism, violence, radical politics, intimidation, confusion, and bloodshed enter young Shaun’s life, eventually leaving him shaken, disillusioned, and, once again, alone.
The film paints a grim picture of working-class England in the early eighties. July 1983 was an unhappy time to be English; unemployment had risen well past the two million mark, the country was nursing still-fresh war wounds, and its people were struggling to scrape by and eke out a living under the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher. The relative success of the Falklands War brought reelection for the Iron Lady, and a surge of patriotic feelings swept the nation. Unfortunately, a healthy sense of national pride was twisted by some into something much harsher, and much more dangerous. This increase in British nationalism and the problems it caused were represented by the character of Combo – a bitter, racist, violent fascist who returns to the fold following a sting in prison, and rapidly becomes a surrogate father figure to Shaun. The young boy looks up to him as a strong masculine figure, and latches onto his ideals in an effort to please him and prevent him from leaving the way Shaun’s real father did. Preaching intolerance thinly disguised as patriotism, he forces Woody’s gang to chose sides, effectively separating the skinheads into rival factions that eventually found it nearly impossible to coexist.
It’s important to note that This is England is set in 1983 - one year after the New National Front and a faction of the British Movement merged to form the new British National Party. Combo brings Shaun and several other young skins to a BNP rally, where they are exposed to the party’s radically nationalist doctrines. The BNP plays a pivotal role in the film’s development, imprinting its ideology into young Shaun’s psyche and molding him into its own xenophobic image. The change in the boy is immediately noticeable, and made most glaringly obvious during a violent, Comno-aided encounter with Mr. Sandhu, the Pakistani shopkeeper with whom Shaun had had minor tussles before.
As the film progresses, Combo cultivates an unlikely friendship with Milky, (a nickname which in itself distinguishes him as something “different” – inadvertently pulled between two cultures by his own best friends). One scene shows the two bonding over marijuana and reggae, a situation that alludes to the hand ska and reggae played in uniting the white skinheads and black Jamaicans of the era. The pleasant atmosphere evaporates as Combo beings asking Milky about the boy’ family; during the course of the next few minutes, the friendly questions turn into a hard-edged interrogation, and eventually end in violence. Milky’s warm stories about his family and the rejection Combo had recently suffered from his former love, Lol, combined to trigger something in the man’s own dark past and damaged psyche. Combo’s savage beating of Milky and the old skin’s ensuing emotional breakdown have a profound impact on Shaun, who saw everything. Suddenly, the tough little skinhead sheds his tough outer shell and once again becomes the scared little boy that all the boots and all the braces braces in the world could not hide.
The closing scene – when Shaun throws the St. George’s Cross flag into the sea – is poignant on several levels. On one, it shows him rejecting his surrogate father and his teachings. One could also take it to mean that Shaun was disowning his English heritage altogether, after seeing it tainted and twisted so terribly by a person he trusted. The St. George’s Cross is still a bone of contention amongst English folk today; while some try to claim it for their own, to celebrate their own unique brand of Englishness, others still see it as a dangerous symbol of nationalism, one that should be kept under wraps and supplanted by the broader-minded Union Jack. It’s anybody’s guess which side will ultimately prevail, and what exactly was meant by Shaun’s parting gesture, but such is the beauty of This is England – much like real life, it leaves the ending up to you.