Film

'This Is England': Reconciling British Identity

On the 20th anniversary of Warp Records, PopMatters staff member Omar Kholeif takes a look back at one of the most influential films in Warp's film catalogue.


This Is England

Director: Shane Meadows
Cast: Stephen Graham, Andrew Ellis, Chanel Cresswell, Sophie Ellerby, Danielle Watson
Studio: Warp Films/Optimum Home Entertainment
Year: 2006
Official Site

This Is England (Meadows, 2006), one of Warp Films’ most acclaimed releases, also happens to be film director Shane Meadows’ masterpiece. A potent political drama set in the summer of 1983; it documents the motivation behind the rise of the Skinhead culture, which came to prominence during Margaret Thatcher’s epochal governance. Yet, more than anything, Meadows’ film is about protagonist Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), his coming-of-age, and his search for some form of ‘identity’.

Based largely on the director’s own experiences, the picture doesn’t shy away from psychologising the young protagonist’s motives. He is small, weak, impoverished, and missing a father who has just died in the Falklands War. Meadows make this clear from some of the very first scenes, which find Shaun taking on a kid twice his age on the last day of school. Shaun is burning, searching for a sense of belonging.

So when Shaun bumps into Woody (Joe Gilgun), and his gang of misfits beneath an underpass after school, it comes as little surprise that the vulnerable child will soon adopt them as his surrogate family. After all, Woody is charming and friendly - a natural older brother figure. He tells Shaun that he can hang out with them again, and in the process helps reinvent Shaun’s image, propelling him into a booted, Ben Sherman, braces-wearing fighter. He is a little “action man”, finding a niche between his prepubescent innocence and his depressing angst. Shaun is such a hit in fact that a much older pseudo-Goth called Smell (Rosamund Hanson) and Shaun start hooking up on a regular basis. Soon, Smell is asking him to perform nuanced sexual favors, and professes that Shaun “kisses like a 40 year-old”, despite his tender age of just 12.

Shaun’s journey is stunted however, by the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), who has just been released from prison. Combo is a burly, and fiery man who comes into the old group, and encourages them that violence and racism is a means to overcome their oppressive squalor. As the gang separates along this racial divide, young Shaun decides to ally himself with Combo – one assumes that the child is mesmerized by the older man’s strength, and soon, a paternal relationship develops.

The film’s setting takes place nearly 30 years ago now, but the portrayal feels as relevant, and as palpable as ever. The specificity of Shaun’s experience, and the root of his yearning are so relatable that the depiction could be of any contemporary British city today. Certainly, as the story reveals, the isolation of growing up in a poor and unpromising community makes gang membership seem like a safe, logical solution. As such, a new aggressive community develops – perpetuated by the bounds of the social and political hierarchies that demonize them.

I moved to Britain as a child from North Africa, only a few years after the events in the narrative took place. As young as I was, the social and economic change spawned by the Thatcherite government, seemed to fill the air with the taut and tense fear found in This Is England. The world was filled with an anxious fear of the unknown. As the class structure disintegrated, and unemployment rates continued to rise, my family felt constantly threatened that our place in the country was at risk.The Conservative government had altered immigration laws so that we were in a constant state of flux – never given a clear answer about our legal settlement rights. In turn, my personal history as it were, mirrors the opposition group of the Skinheads depicted in the Meadows film. Technically speaking, I fall somewhere between the demonized group of the South-East Asian shop owner, and Milky (Andre Shim)’s Afro-Caribbean heritage.

But as This Is England proves, the irony is that the two groups are drawn together by numerous similarities. For a start, mainstream government rejected us both because we didn’t fit into the status quo, we existed side by side in sub-standard living conditions, and we all held onto a close-knit sense of community to get us through it all. Nothing makes this as clear as Shaun’s portrayal in the narrative. Sitting back, and revisiting the film for the first time in a year, I found myself identifying completely with Shaun’s anxious search for validation. Unfortunately, it is true that fear, or perhaps, fear of getting hurt drives individuals to misguided hatred. When one group demonizes another, it allows itself a sense of validation – a right to exist, and a means to uphold community logic.

In the intermittent time since my youth, I have lived in the North America, the Middle East and Africa, only to find myself back where I started again, living in England. Over the years, England (and Britain more generally speaking) has seen itself fluctuate from a melting pot to a place of xenophobic violence, as well as a hotbed for radical hared. But in the end, the nationalistic verve that espouses the lives of everyday citizens rarely supersedes personal identity. It is no surprise then that in This Is England, both Milky and Combo (two people from very different backgrounds) identify equally as “English”. That is because being English (or British) has grown to become a far more heterogeneous label - one that merges one’s individual heritage, with old British traditions. More than anything, being English has become synonymous with personal expression (from punk rockers to white, aristocratic female rappers), Britain has become, above all, a place, where we are all, free to find ourselves.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.