Starring Thomas Turgoose and Stephen Graham. Rated 18A.
When writer-director Shane Meadows burst onto the indie scene a decade ago with 24 7: Twenty Four Seven, viewers could have been forgiven for seeing him as a low-budget Guy Ritchie. But while Meadows, the younger, self-taught Brit, still uses violence and genre-tweaking humour to entertaining effects, he has evolved into a far more original filmmaker.
Again working in his beloved Midlands–in this case, the area around grimy Nottingham (where sheriffs are in short supply) –Meadows takes us back to 1983, when Maggie Thatcher was really starting to transfer the U.K.'s wealth to the people who already had too much. She had just completed a dog-and-pony show called the Falklands War, in which the nation was reminded of its imperial past.
This Is England centres on 12-year-old Shaun (the quietly startling Thomas Turgoose), who has just lost his father in the Argentine conflict and, like England, is floundering in general. His poodle-haired mum (Meadows regular Jo Hartley) is very busy sitting in the kitchen smoking cigarettes, so the much-bullied Shaun keeps wandering until he finds a gang of local skinheads, which takes him under its collective wing.
This was the earlier, Two Tone era of skindom, and racism is not yet an issue for the ska-loving lads. Their leader, the gangly, wisecracking Woody (Joseph Gilgun), is more of a thinker than a fighter. But this small circle is abruptly squared when former pal Combo, played unforgettably by the menacing Stephen Graham (like Gilgun, a Coronation Street veteran), arrives from prison, bristling with grudges and National Front propaganda.
This funny, perfectly acted first period piece has many small anachronisms on the screen and soundtrack, although the only item that really rankled was Woody's command that a follower "chill out". Yet you can't fault the director's fluid use of archival footage or great tunes by the Clash and Toots and the Maytals. He's making short, sharp points about history and human pathology, but Meadows's most remarkable quality here is the deep sympathy he shows for even the angriest chrome dome.