The way we were
Dubbed the `Scorcese of the Midlands’, Shane Meadows is one of the UK’s brightest modern filmmaking talents. ‘This is England‘ continues a series of excellent films by the director set around working class Nottingham that often feature non-professional actors and a liberal use of improvisation. While belonging to a British cinematic tradition – social realism with a twist of surreal humour – that owes much to the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, this is a classic rites of passage drama with roots that can be traced back to Trauffaut’s ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups‘.
You have to have lived in Thatcher’s Britain to fully appreciate the attention to detail put into recreating the mood of the times in ‘This is England‘. The credit sequence – a montage of contemporaneous news footage – sets the scene: royal weddings, the Fawklands war, the miners’ strikes and class conflict. For all the verisimilitude, though, it’s the honesty and intensity of the performances that carry this film. Meadows looks at the skinhead movement with the sympathetic eye of someone who experienced it first hand. He does not seek to demonise those involved, but to show how what began as a fashion with roots – paradoxically – in black culture, became politicised at a time of class strife and social alienation. Meadows uses a ska soundtrack to demonstrate the contradiction at the heart of the skinheads, that the music they loved was directly influenced by reggae imported to the UK by Carribbean immigration.
The way that Meadows uses contemporaneous music makes the Scorcese comparison seem more astute than it initially seems. Not only does it set a sense of time and place, but it brings a tangible voice to the emotional turmoil of his characters. At times this can be a little too literal, especially in This is England‘s final sequence when we are treated to some of Morrissey’s finest lyrics: “See, the luck I’ve had / Can make a good man turn bad”. It’s a shame that they couldn’t use the original Smiths song, for the singer in the cover version is a pale imitation of Morrissey. That said, this is another sad, beautiful film from one of the UK’s best directors.