Shaun is not having a good day. He’s learned the hard way that reading a comic book he can’t afford can only result in a telling off from the owner of the local shop. He’s also learned that wearing a pair of desperately unfashionable flared trousers to his school’s non-uniform day makes him a subject of ridicule among his classmates; a bunch of trendy mods, skinheads and lacquered-up New Romantics. Finally, he has learned that taking a righteous swing at a bully for making a wisecrack about his dead father will land him in detention, and earn him a series of whacks across the knuckles for his trouble.
This is Shaun’s day. This is the English East Midlands, 1983. And this is the set-up for Shane Meadows’ 2007 breakthrough hit, This Is England.
We know from the outset that Shaun’s bad morning is not an isolated one. There are much bigger forces at play here. Poverty and a desperate hand-to-mouth existence lead to Shaun, played by an excellent Thomas Turgoose in his debut role, wearing cast-offs, and looking longingly at comic books instead of buying them for himself. Shaun’s father, a soldier killed in the Falklands War the previous year, is seen not as someone worthy of respect and admiration, but as fair game for a funny remark at his son’s expense.
The fissures which were tearing England apart in the early ’80s are all present and correct in this opening scene, and it is the youth that we see bearing their brunt. This Is England takes us on a journey through the skinhead sub-culture, through questions of identity and belonging, through friendship, through the plight of the British working class, through the economic degradation of provincial England, through education, through adolescence, and through hatred, racism and white supremacy. And all of this — every aspect of this diverse and often horrifying thematic melting pot — is filtered through the experience of a single, 12-year-old boy.
It’s clear that there will be no easy ride for young Shaun.
In 1999, eight years before This Is England was released to rapturous commercial and critical acclaim, Meadows made A Room for Romeo Brass. Smaller in scope, in budget and in recognition, A Room for Romeo Brass was still well received by critics, and scooped several British Independent Film Awards nominations.
Like This Is England, A Room for Romeo Brass focuses on life in provincial England and on characters at the very fringes of society. Also like This Is England, the events are presented to us through 12-year-old eyes, in this case the eyes of Gavin Woolley (Ben Marshall) — also known as Knocks — and the titular Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim). Gavin is disabled, ostracized, and utterly friendless apart from next door neighbour Romeo, who remains a committed companion and guardian.
We are back in the East Midlands, in a city more easily identifiable as Nottingham this time, and in an environment in which kids grow up fast and grow up tough. Gavin’s disability makes him an easy target, and — over and over again — it is Romeo who steps up to take the punches and to throw a few of his own.
Knock Knock (Ben Marshall) and Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) in A Room for Romeo Brass
Romeo’s commitment to his mate is touching. The two were thrown together by affordable housing in this part of the city, but their friendship is a genuine one, and is communicated to us without the devaluing clichés and ham-fisted set pieces that often characterise such coming of age dramas, which tend to tug at the heartstrings with all the finesse of a cow wearing a boxing glove. However, a straight-up pre-teen buddy movie this is not and, before long, the arrival on the scene of the peculiar loner, Morell (Paddy Considine), gives A Room for Romeo Brass a deeply unsettling tone. Morell’s intentions are unclear; he is at least 20 years older than Gavin and Romeo, and his behaviour is increasingly disturbing. The boys have a new protector, but who is going to protect them from him?
There are contextual parallels to be drawn between A Room for Romeo Brass and This Is England. Both take place in an East Midlands city, which is probably Nottingham (although This Is England includes some serious leaps into the realms of geographical poetic license). Both sets of characters inhabit small worlds with apparently no hope of breaking out. Both sets of characters escape to the expanse and relative freedom of the seaside when it all gets a bit too heavy. And the lives of both Shaun, and of Romeo and Gavin, are touched profoundly by the arrival on the scene of someone far older; someone who shows them the precarious edge of the space and community they inhabit, and who propels them from childhood into something far beyond their years.
This is the notion of accelerated childhood that pervades so much of Meadows’ work; the idea of a young character — a character who should still be wrapped in the anxieties of pre-pubescence and of getting back home in time for dinner before his mum gets annoyed — who suddenly finds himself in a far darker, more adult world. This is the juxtaposition that Meadows presents to us, and this is the source of the disturbing sense of malice, peril and danger that makes its presence felt in the later acts of both films. Whether we are discussing Gavin and Romeo’s run in with a psychotic, deranged stalker, or Shaun’s ascent through the ranks of a local group of militant fascists, the sensation is similar. We see ourselves in these kids, we see our own children, the children of our friends and family members — and we know that these are situations, which should not touch the lives of someone so young, that these children have no business straying so far from the safety of the accepted middle ground.
And yet we know it happens. We see it every day on the news. Violence, politics, warfare, crime, even just plain old bad luck; these things do not discriminate on the basis of age, and any one of these elements can cause a person — even a child — to slip away from the sense of safety and community that we all take for granted. Meadows knows this well and refuses to shy away from the truth. While both films pull their punches in places — and This Is England is far more overtly political than its kitchen-sink drama predecessor — the malicious and disturbing realities of life are present in both works, and serve to wrench our young protagonists prematurely from the innocence of youth.
Perhaps it’s the normality — the lack of extenuating circumstances — that’s so disturbing. Shaun has experienced the death of a father, but his mother is devoted, loving and responsible. Romeo’s parents are separated, but the core of his family unit remains, while Gavin is an only child living with a loving mother and a loving, if somewhat eccentric, father. These are stable homes. They are not homes unmarked by the hand of tragedy and struggle, but they are kernels of love and support for our characters nevertheless. If these children can find themselves loosed suddenly from the gravitational concepts of family and home — if these children can become so horrifically exposed and vulnerable — then all children are similarly vulnerable.
It’s not broken homes that drive the narrative in either film. Initially, both plots are propelled by the natural forces of youthful adventure and misadventure, and then by the arrival of sinister third parties into their respective lives. Rather, it’s through these third parties that our diminutive heroes witness the products of a broken society.
Kids in modern movies are frequently portrayed as tough, smart-assed, streetwise know-it-alls. Meadows takes a more realistic approach. The kids in his movies have attitude by the bucket-load, and they are willing to stand their ground and to talk back when the moment calls for it, but there’s more to them than this. They are complex, they are naïve, they are easily led, they seek entertainment and friendship, and these traits leave them open to manipulation.
When Morell rolls into A Room for Romeo Brass with his strange accent and his battered old banger of a car, Gavin and Romeo are drawn to him out of boredom. When the unhinged Nazi skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham) shows up in This Is England, Shaun is drawn to him not because he hates Pakistani migrants and believes in ‘England for the English’, but because he craves a sense of purpose and self-worth. Combo’s ranting and raving about “the fucking Falklands” and the sickening waste of life that occurred in this conflict has Shaun incensed. He rages at Combo; he swings for him, kicks out at him, the tears flowing and the blood raging. But Combo charms him, he calms him down, he realises that he has found a vessel receptive to the racist bile and Far Right invective he spews forth throughout the movie.
The others present — Shaun’s recently acquired friends — cannot believe what they have witnessed; they never knew about Shaun’s father, because no one other than tattooed thug Combo had ever bothered to find out. This is another curveball on the Meadows character arc, as the masterful director shows us the human side to Combo, while also demonstrating the mechanics of indoctrination, of radicalisation, and of the manipulation of the vulnerable.
Meadows is not out to paint the East Midlands as a place devoid of hope or empathy. Instead, he has seeks to draw our attention to contemporary issues, shining a light on those who are so often ignored and sidelined by society. In A Room for Romeo Brass, Morell is an individual who society has failed; a man who should, long ago, have been delivered the help, assistance and support his fragile mental state so desperately needed. In This Is England, malicious skinhead combo is viewed more as a product of a society in decline; the inevitable endgame of a culture so quick to throw members of its underclass on the scrapheap.
At first glance, the two men are very different, but both share a similar standing in society; both have been marginalised, pushed out, denied a seat at the top table by those who deem them undesirable. They are both people who, perhaps, we would cross the street to avoid, or to whom we might turn a blind eye. Meadows makes us confront them, and he makes us confront our own attitudes in the process.
Both films are parables of modern isolation and disconnection from the wider community. Through Gavin and Romeo, and through Shaun, and through the relationships that all three forge with nefarious outsiders, we see the dangers of marginalisation and abandonment writ large across a fractured landscape. Those dangers are still present — we see their results every time the news brings us pictures of a suicide bombing in the Middle East or a high-school shooting in the Midwest — and we cannot, as a society, afford to let individuals slip through the cracks. This is one of the messages driving Meadows’ work. It doesn’t always make for comfortable viewing, but the lessons we can learn make it so worth exploring.