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Director lets his hair down in 'England'

August 03, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The images that open Shane Meadows' deeply personal, politically charged drama "This Is England" begin with cheeky nostalgia, an innocuous collection of 1980s British iconography -- TV's Roland Rat, grinning Margaret Thatcher photo-ops, primitive video games, Duran Duran, the royal wedding of Charles and Di. The montage then quickly shifts to more potent reflections: the Falklands War, National Front demonstrations, angry clashes between civilians and police, and Thatcher standing cheek by jowl with Ronald Reagan.

This introduction clearly establishes the period of the film but does not prepare us for the degree of affection and understanding Meadows has for the era. The writer-director brilliantly juxtaposes the personal and the political, bookending a stirring coming-of-age drama with the provocative opening and an equally affecting end sequence.

Inspired by Meadows' own early indoctrination into skinhead culture, the film follows the travails of 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a scrappy, undersized lad who's recently lost his father in the Falklands conflict. Bullied at school, Shaun is impudent and largely friendless until a gang of minor hoodlums, led by the charming Woody (Joe Gilgun), takes him under its wing.

Shaun is immediately drawn to the older boys' camaraderie, their access to girls and their showy impertinence. He's given a haircut and a Ben Sherman shirt and made to feel like one of them. Meadows succeeds in re-creating a milieu that is at once threatening and welcoming: We indulge the delinquent rituals, happy that Shaun is being looked after, even if it's by a surrogate family turning him on to vandalism and smoking, among other vices.

Like the opening montage, the narrative soon takes a more dramatic turn. The arrival of Combo, a just-released-from-prison mate of Woody's, signals not only a change in tone but a shift in Shaun's allegiance and an entree into a more dangerous and foreboding world. Combo (Stephen Graham) is a thick, menacing bulldog of a man and a surprisingly inspiring speaker who sees himself in Shaun and acts to make him his protégé.

If Woody represents the older, mischief-making brother Shaun never had, Combo plays the proxy father. The brash, manly, nationalistic rhetoric Combo spews is all too easily swallowed by Shaun, who seeks only to honor his father's memory and is blind to the racism and xenophobia embedded in it.

Meadows is not interested in portraying anyone as a monster or boogeyman, however. There is a fond sense of romanticism in his depiction of the skinheads and the time period, but his characters are thoroughly motivated. Combo is a tremendously sympathetic character, whose fear and anger-propelled vitriol is made human by Graham's fiery yet layered performance.

Working with a mix of nonprofessional and experienced actors has become Meadows' forte. First-timer Turgoose is marvelous as Shaun, projecting both the heartbreaking innocence and a deeply rooted feistiness that make him so memorable. Top-notch work is also done by Gilgun; Rosamund Hanson as Shaun's first girlfriend, Smell; and two young actors who previously appeared in Meadows' "A Room for Romeo Brass," Andrew Shim and Vicky McClure.

Drawing parallels both implicit and explicit to today's Britain, Meadows ably follows in the social realist footsteps of Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Following "TwentyFourSeven," "Romeo Brass," "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" and "Dead Man's Shoes," the film represents Meadows' most accomplished work yet.

"This Is England" packs an emotional thump, building to inevitable tragedy that nevertheless has the impact of a head-butt.

"This is England." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At the Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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