Thursday, June 4, 2009

This Is England (2006)

Shane Meadows is a great filmmaker. Perhaps the most consistently brilliant British director of the last decade. Even though Danny Boyle gets the international and occasional commercial accolades (deservedly so) and Ken Loach still produces magnificent films even after forty years in the business, Shane Meadows is the real deal. I am a little biased here as a former resident of Nottingham and an alumnus of the city's main university, where I took a course in his then very brief but distinguished career. With its short running time (just 60 minutes), Small Time (1996) was an astonishing film. 24:7, starring Bob Hoskins, was a fantastic coming-of-age story shot in a nostalgia-inducing black and white. There were duds, of course. Once upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) failed despite best intentions. No one was ready, though, for the emotional assault that his next film had brought: Dead Man's Shoes is quite probably the best British film of the decade.

With This Is England, Meadows follows his similar theme and setting: working-class youths trying to find their way in small town Nottinghamshire. The humour, which was crucially missing in Dead Man's Shoes, is back here with buckets. We are in 1983. Britain is at war with Argentina and ska is everywhere. Sean, whose father dies fighting for the British in the Falklands, is bullied at school. On the last day of the term he befriends a gang of wannabe skinheads / ska punks. They cut his hair and show him around the block. Sean, for the first time in his life, feels respected. Things go sour when a real-deal skinhead, Combo, comes back from serving three years in prison. He wants recruits to sweep the nation from "foreigners". He takes a liking for Sean and takes him under his wings. The rest of the original gang want nothing of it and leave Sean to Combo's mercy.

There are plenty of cringe-inducing scenes and plenty of scenes that are purely horrific. The finale has brought tears to my eyes. Meadows' use of music should make Danny Boyle pretty uncomfortable in his throne. Without telling much of what everybody feels, the scenes play out organically and the result is another resounding success. I haven't yet seen Somers Town - set in London - but I'm pretty sure it's going to be exceptional. The real superstar director of Britain isn't Boyle. It should be Meadows.

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