Saturday, August 25, 2007

THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)……7.5/10

"A violent man will die a violent death."

Shane Meadows’ most recent film, a semi autobiographical slice of middleclass suburban England circa 1983, concerns itself with the coming of age of a 12 year old boy named Shaun. He’s being mocked at school for his out-of-style clothes and suffering ever more from the loss of his father in the Faulklands war. Shaun befriends a rowdy ragtag group of young Skins on a detour from school one day. Led by the eloquent and optimistic Woody, the group opens their arms to him without a moments thought. In belonging to a surrogate family of “outcasts”, Shaun begins to build some much needed self-esteem. However, Shaun’s self esteem turns into a poisonous pride when a former member of the group, Combo, returns from jail to spill his newly learned nationalist rhetoric onto his underlings, and present an ultimatum. Shaun, seeing something of a father in Combo, quickly takes to his side, and a rift is drawn between those who will fight the street war for English pride, and those who will not. From this rift is built an inevitable downward spiral.

Shaun and Combo make quite a pair, and to a minor degree one is almost pleased by their union. One bright and young, the other brash and not yet old, each bringing out the opposite quality in the other. “It’s like looking in the mirror, like we’re the same person,” he says to Shaun. At this point, the narrative, finding a kindred protagonist in Combo, justifiably deviates to his struggles. With a self entitled privilege Combo takes charge of the pack of strays he’s left with after dropping his ultimatum, and likewise takes charge of the film itself. He serves as the linchpin to the ideological whirlwind that spins a once tight-fisted brotherhood into factions. This inevitability serves as a counterpoint to the notion of nationalism and community that Combo aggressively preaches, revealing that his modalities and ideology are more fuel for dissent than unity. As a companion piece to this film I would highly recommend Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for its relatable content.

Combo, though seeming to be the most simplistic character in the film based on his explicit goals, is slowly revealed to be the most complex in attitude and motivation. His name, Combo, even stands as a red flag for his dynamism and internal confliction. This is articulated in three particular scenes, two of which take place in his car. The car scenes are incredibly intimate, shutting out the world for a few moments of unabashed sincerity. In the first of these scenes Combo says to Shaun that if he ever needs to just talk with someone, get into a scuffle, or even have a cry, that he will always be there. “I’ll never turn my back on you.” In the second of these scenes, we find Combo talking with Woody’s girlfriend Lol, professing his long standing affections towards her in a bashful and almost childlike manner, only to the avail of her rejection. “You’re all I could think about for those three years,” he admits, offering her a handmade box with her initials embroidered on its top in red (weighted imagery considering the spell of violence that is, in part, this rejections’ aftermath). In both of these scenes the camera is tight on the characters faces, divergent from the loosely kinetic camera that dominate the rest of the film. The shots of Combo are tellingly close, isolating his face, cutting off the top of his head and chin. For all intents and purposes this isolates Combo from his identity as a skinhead and puts him back into a vulnerable human station, signaling to the audience a glimpse of his deepest motivations; love, fraternity, compassion, and generosity; all these things being thrown in conflict with his more overt display of bitterness, ferocity, and growing racism. For these scenes I commend the work of cinematographer Danny Cohen and the dynamism of Stephen Graham’s revelational and subtle performance. The third of these scenes is at the films tipping point, and suffice it to say that a man’s face can show a thousand feelings all at once.

What continually impresses me about this film is that despite its dabbling in rather volatile and severe content, fairness and humility prevail in its portraiture. THIS IS ENGLAND doesn’t pretend to have the single authoritative view of Skinhead culture, because it is a film whose agenda is more broadly laid. It’s far too responsible, intimate, and authentic a narrative to be concerned with the trappings of specificity. Shane Meadows, instead, presents a culture in fair view; both in its idealisms and its pitfalls, in its ambiguity and its sometimes frightening clarity, through a natural and gradual exposure. We see Skins in their best light; rowdy but heartfelt comrades of all walks (one of the members, Milky, is half Jamaican) joined in commonality rather than victimhood, and in its worst light; bestowing a threat of violence and bearing a weighted didacticism. In THIS IS ENGLAND, we are ushered into the boiling point of the Skinhead movement as it segues, in part, towards violent and vehement nationalism, merging a working class youth based demographic with the economically minded self-preservationist post-war attitude of an older generation. But again, this is more so a stage for the ideas of how dangerous and polarizing absolutism can be, and how confusion in attitudes is a motivation for violence, both physical and psychological.

Because Combo’s agenda is weighted so heavily on England’s declining economic standards and the fear of outsourced "cheap and easy labor," it merely serves the film's own agenda of underscoring the kind of absurdity inherent in preaching such matters to a group of, for all intents and purposes, children. Compounded with the fact that Combo himself isn't seeking employment, not performing his duty as a hard working Englishman, it is clear that he's simply parroting the slogans of another demographic's campaign to justify his own aggression. The only person we can be sure of that even has a job is Lol because she's emphatic about being late for work when confronted by Combo in the streets. THIS IS ENGLAND relies mostly on an "aesthetic middleclassness," using geography and summertime "everydayness" as its quieter cultural indicators.

My singular quarrel with THIS IS ENGLAND, which I have conditionally revoked, has to do with the soudtrack. Knowing that the Skinheads are themselves a product of the Punk Rock subculture, it seems almost errant for the film to shy away from making more than a few such nods (beyond attire and hairstyles). What I diecided after deliberation is that Meadows' hand picked soundtrack seeks a broader spectrum of music to capure the times as ENGLAND is interested in a contextual broadness in each of its scopes. Maybe these jobless kids don’t have enough money to go to shows, or are in deficit of a music scene, floating in a suburbanesque quarantine. Furthermore, Shaun, our protagonist, didn't become a Skin for love of the music. He could scarcely name a single band off the top of his head if pressed, i'm sure. He was introduced to the fraternal culture directly by its participants rather than by one of its aesthetic threads (though he donned their uniform just the same). And Combo's interests are certainly well beyond the exhuberance of youth and music. In the end, it would have been an easy road, though perhaps appropriate, to have laden THIS IS ENGLAND with Punk and Skin anthems. Not fitting for a hard knocks tale that takes the hard road to be told.
-Aaron Mannino

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