This Is England

September 3, 2007

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DVD Out Today

Happy days. Shane Meadows finally gets the recognition he deserves without selling his soul to the devil of film production. Following outstanding but largely ignored early projects (TwentyFourSeven, A Room For Romeo Brass) the homegrown genius with an eye for realism took on big stars and big money for his first bonafide commercial release in 2002. From the result (Once Upon A Time In The Midlands) it was obvious to those with brain cells that Meadows plus cash plus remotely famous people was not a formula for success. The film flopped, but more importantly it gave the big bald maverick his first bitter taste of how studio interference and an almost total theft of creative control can ruin a noble vision. Meadows works best on a shoe-string budget with unknown talent, an environment where his ideas, honesty and grit are left to breathe and grow. 2004’s grisly revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes marked a return to such a style with considerable success, but it’s with This Is England that Meadows enjoyed greatest acclaim. There’s some debate as to whether or not it demonstrates his best work, but at the very least it opened a lot more eyes to the brilliance of an unsung hero.

It’s 1983, and in Thatcher’s broken Britain young Shaun falls in with a bad crowd. Poverty, racism and violence are rife here, and following his father’s death in the Falklands the impressible Shaun is soon the very model of a National Front skinhead. Fans will find all the Meadows trademarks present and correct- a blistering soundtrack, a cheeky sense of humour glowing through the dirt, and the agonizingly relentless threat that something terrible is about to be unleashed.

Romeo Brass introduced us to the incredible world of Paddy Considine, and in Tom Turgoose Meadows has struck gold once again. He plays Shaun with an insight and truth that transcends his years, at once at home with Meadows’ improvisational style. And he’s not the only one. Child actors can make or break a film, and thankfully the huge bank of young acting talent on show were almost entirely hand-picked from Nottingham’s revered youth group The Television Workshop, the star factory that launched the career of Sam Morton (Minority Report, The Libertine, In America). The Workshop has been a very happy hunting ground for Meadows, a discovery made all the more valuable considering his Spielberg-esque knack of connecting with his audience through the eyes of children. The grown-up cast shine equally brightly; Stephen Graham (Snatch) is terrifying as the explosive Combo, carrying the film with pure brutal instensity and providing much of the knife-edge anxiety on which the story sits. His character makes mincemeat of the hammy Hollywood villain- Combo represents not only the evil of the violent gangs and individuals of the period, but the more sinister politics and social dissilusion that spawned such monsters.

Though visually very attractive as a period piece, at times it does seem to be grappling with too many themes or sub-plots. The autobiographical nature of the story (Shaun/Shane- geddit?) affords the odd misguided opportunity for self-indulgence. A love interest is an unconvincing and unecessary plot strand, and too many peripheral characters reduces the impact of the main players and our feelings for them. The raw simplicity of Dead Man’s Shoes and Romeo Brass is missing here, which makes for a messy last quarter as attempts to tie loose ends are made. Despite this the charm and storytelling prowess that characterises Meadows’ work is still a driving force behind the film, and by the conclusion even the hardest of viewers would have to sit extremely still to avoid being moved.

As Terry Gilliam often famously discovers to his peril, any director has to make ‘money’ films to enable him to keep on with more personal visions. Sadly, there’s still the underlying feeling with This Is England that the Midlands incident will always haunt Shane Meadows. It’s a paradox that now his guerilla-style realism is a commercial success he must always be thinking, camera in hand, where his next wad of funding is coming from. This does seem to be a turning point in his struggle with the system and he’s turned in a seminal piece of cinema, but he should know better than anyone that when no one is watching we’re all as brutal as we’d like to be.      

DVD CRUNCH: 4/5 hairless heads

 The 2-disc DVD co-incides with release of the marvellous This Is Shane Meadows box set, containing most of his back-catologue (minus Once Upon A Time… but that’s no deterrent). It’s a must for the fan and a perfect initiation for the un-initiated, but for the splendid array of extras on This Is England unfortunately you have to purchase the 2-disc version of the film itself. Meadows is extremely savvy to the needs of DVD customers and creates tidy and complete packages for the full experience on most of his films. Discover an emerging talent before the rest of the world does.     

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