I was really impressed with This is England. I cared about the main character, as well as various of the other characters.
The film, set in the Thatcher era, tells the story of a twelve year old boy who falls in with a gang of skinheads, becoming something of a little brother figure to the members, especially to the unofficial leader. When a much older former member is released from prison, he immediately seeks to gain control of the gang and take it in a much more menacing direction, into more serious crime and fascist xenophobic politics.
The gang splits, and members, including the boy who is the main character, must make difficult choices of what part of their nature and their values to affirm in offering their allegiance to one faction or the other.
There’s a lot going on in this movie that fascinated me. I liked that it felt real psychologically and socially, and I liked that some aspects of the movie went against common beliefs and expectations.
For example, you hear “skinheads” and you think evil, violent racists. But really this “gang” doesn’t fit that stereotype at all (though the older member’s faction later does). They’re into a certain amount of low level crime and mischief, but mostly they’re a group of friends with strong and positive ties to each other.
And it doesn’t feel phony that they’re presented that way, like the movie is sugarcoating skinheads and turning them into the Brady Bunch. My reaction was instead “Yeah, that makes sense. I knew that or should have known that.” It’s the same as with “motorcycle gangs,” or “kids who listen to rock and roll,” or various other youth subgroups that certain societies in certain historical periods have demonized: people who fit into these categories run the gamut from fulfilling every negative stereotype square culture has of them, to being utterly innocuous. Kids choose the skinhead look for any number of social reasons, not all of them malevolent.
Or another example would be the relationship between the boy and his eventual girlfriend, who is about five years older. Now, you describe that to people, and almost everyone would respond that it’s a no-brainer that it’s an unhealthy thing, that the girl is either an evil pedophile or pitifully emotionally immature herself. And aside from the moral disapproval, you’d assume it couldn’t help but be comical to see a little kid strutting around with a girl who is close to college age.
But somehow, to me at least, it doesn’t play out that way. Yes, there’s a certain incongruousness to them as a couple, and it’s good for a smile or a chuckle, but it’s not ridiculous. She’s maybe a couple years less developed intellectually and socially than the average person her age—so far from retarded—and he’s maybe a couple years more developed than the typical twelve year old, so they kind of meet in the middle. And she’s very sweet natured and very caring, so their somewhat naïve and fumbling experiments in getting physical come across more as charming than as a reason to call the police or condemn either party. Their whole interaction is unexpectedly sweet.
I also found the boy’s relationship with his single mother to be believable. She is wary but ultimately accepting of his new associations (the gang and his girlfriend) that seem bad on the surface but are in fact mostly positive. She’s a good parent, but not to the point where she’s too perfect to be believable.
The whole dynamic when the gang members have to decide between the factions is riveting. It’s clear whom to root for, but at the same time you understand why in their position not all the members make the better choice, and it’s hard to condemn them when they don’t. And it gives you some insight into why people form into socially and politically horrific right wing groups, beyond just the simplistic explanation that they’re exceedingly evil human beings.
The movie even does a good job of making the main villain human, of showing how his painful life experiences have built up a rage inside him that can explode at any moment, while also in a way making him a deeper, more empathic person. His nasty side is more to the forefront, but his decent side is there too. And you see the potential for the young boy to follow that same path. Right now his good-natured side is most prominent, and the anger and violence and bigotry are only occasional flashes, but surely the same could have been said about the villain or just about any bad guy if you go back far enough in his childhood.
The early and late montages associating the movie with the Falklands War don’t work so well for me. The politics of the more grown up, ominous, fascist faction of the skinhead gang are a little too complex for that to fit all that well. I mean I assume the idea is that the mean-spirited right wing policies of the Thatcher government, and its dubious war to defend one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, stirred up the worst passions and jingoism and general ugliness of the most impressionable of the ignorant masses, represented here by the bad faction of the gang. But actually that faction denounces Thatcher and opposes the war. (Though they are militarists and look back fondly on when Britain had the power to lord it over the lesser races, they also seem to have an element of isolationism.) So I understand at a certain level that “respectable” right wingers encourage the extremists and make them seem less beyond the pale, but I don’t know that the Falklands War specifically works here in making that point.
Although I may also be misinterpreting the purpose of those montages.
But overall, the scenes, the dialogue, are consistently believable and compelling. The acting is solid; the young boy especially is just right.
This is England is clearly one of the best movies I’ve written about so far.