NCE more, with feeling:
Something spoilery this way comes…
Back off, buddy, lest you learn that which you seek not.
This is England: so you probably know from the outset that a movie about how a kid gets caught up in a skinhead gang in England is probably not going to be the cheeriest of fil-ums! Surprisingly, then, there’s a real sense of humour about this movie, and because it pulls no punches, really, about the hideousness of what goes on, the humour feels sincere and adequate to the situation, rather than undermining it (yes, I’m referencing this). The movie is semi-autobiographical, based on director Shane Meadows’ teenage dalliance with skinheads. And it is this, I think, which enables the evocation of the extraordinary situatedness of his story, which is what makes the movie successful.
We start with 12 year old Shaun, who is being teased at school (it’s casual clothes day, that source of pain for all those poorer than their context, I think!) for wearing flares. It’s pretty solidly the eighties, and there’s many enjoyable moments just checking out the gear some of them get around in (I’m just a little too young to have participated!) He retorts, and the jibe’s good enough that his antagonist goes for the throat: his dad was killed in the Faulklands, and not so long ago. This is important, as it seems to be a source of loneliness and the ‘in’ for the racism. The day doesn’t get any better, and he’s heading home through an underpass looking mope-y when Woody and his mates say hello. They’re friendly to him, in a fairly believable way: vaguely condescending because they’re older, but sincere enough in their interest in him. Woody’s the head of this group of I think five, and there’s ‘Tubs,’ who is worried that little Shaun’s going to take his place in the gang, there’s Milky (Jamaican heritage which becomes important, obviously, later), ‘Pukey’ and another kid whose name I can’t quite remember… Gadget, maybe? Woody talks Shaun into sticking around, defends him against Tubs and they share a beer with him.
The scenes in which Meadows sets up the binding ties of these friendships are extraordinarily evocative, both wild-edged and tender. From rampaging through an empty set of flats destroying things to the group hug (complete with Woody’s “alright, whose hand was that on my arse?”), to setting him up with ‘Smell’, and of course the gradual, not straightforwardly friendly inclusion of him in the gang, signified in his looks: Shaun tries to get Docs (they’re too big for him), the girls shave his head, roll up his jeans and Woody gives him a Ben Sherman shirt and enviable red braces. And he’s part of the gang. It feels like it rings true, capturing the euphoria of belonging, and the sharp willfulness of Yoof.
It’s the arrival of Combo that throws this warm squabbly little space into chaos. It looks like Combo, sizeably older than the rest, took the fall for something Woody did once, and was sent to jail for three years. He’s just out, and he arrives spouting angry racism. He’s an aggressive man, and angry, though Meadows doesn’t go for the easy two dimensions here either, as he has moments of uncertainty and warmth in amongst the nutso aggression. He’s going to recruit from amongst Woody’s skinhead-more-in-looks-than-acts gang for his ‘troops.’ (There’s some interesting stuff about the history of skinheads that Meadows is trying to get across in demonstrating these two modes of skinheadedness, but I’ll leave you to read about that on the ‘this is england’ site.) When Woody refuses to go along with what Combo’s saying, Combo tries to make him out a hypocrite for not standing up for Milky when Combo was being racist. Woody apologises to Milky and they leave, along with Lolo (Woody’s girl, though this is a wee bit more complicated, as we’ll see). They try to take Shaun with them, but he’ll have none of it—Combo’s connected his father’s death with his racist politics, and Shaun believes that the way to avenge his dad is to join up. What follows involves graffiti, new clothes, new tatts, bullying and intimidating immigrants (kids and adults) with machetes, no less, and attending a National Front meeting (this is, I gather, about the point historically when they started recruiting from amongst skinhead gangs). Pukey gets chucked out for questioning Combo: ‘did you really believe all that shit?’ There’s a scene where Shaun goes into the local milk bar (is that too Victorian a phrase? I don’t know what the Brits call ’em: you know, the local store, the deli in Adelaidean, I think the corner store in Sydnish!) and demands from the Indian (?) owner cigarettes, booze and sweets, which of course he’s refused. Shaun refuses to leave, and the owner winds up trying to haul him out. Combo arrives and (my gut clenched horribly at this) pulls out a machete. He menaces the owner, they steal a whole load of stuff. It’s scary stuff. But in the midst of all this, while Combo’s underlying aggression comes through, so does his warmth to Shaun, who he sees as a younger version of himself. He promises to always be there for Shaun, and even (interestingly, given the hard-edged masculinity at stake here) promises to ‘cry’ with him, if he needs to… clearly heady stuff for a lonely kid without a dad!
The big moment in the film follows Combo’s unsuccessful attempt to get with Lolo, who he slept with in ‘the best night of my life’ whilst she, 16, was completely pissed. He tells her that he’s spent the three years in jail remembering that night; she says she’s spent that time trying to forget it. He’s angry, and goes off seeking Milky. When he finds him, though, he’s friendly, looking for weed. Milky gets some for him, and they all go back to Combo’s place, where there’s a rather endearing moment of them all getting cheerful and Shaun’s laughing his head off. At this point Combo asks Milky various questions about his background; his family and ‘their’ music. It seems friendly for a good long time, and then abruptly, with Milky (and us) reaching the sickening conclusion that he was lured here for precisely this reason, Combo uncoils and beats him up in a fairly brutal fashion. The rest run off, but Shaun hides in the bathroom, hearing Combo ‘come to himself’/realise what exactly he’s done, and sob and get angry again, and sob some more. Shaun’s loyalty forces him back into the room with Combo, who is both beside himself and trying to pull himself together for Shaun’s sake (after all, he’s just a lil kid!) and to get Milky to the hospital. The sweetness of the space is gone for Shaun, and in a (slightly kitschy but forgivable) symbolic moment, he throws the St George’s cross into the sea (which personally I want to know how he did because it’s damn hard to throw cloth anywhere!).
I’m sorry to recount the story like this, without much real consideration of the political issues at stake, but I actually think it’s a deeply political movie precisely because it is so engaged in evoking a particular time, place and social setting. I don’t think it falls for cliches of racism (though it might have been good to have spent a bit more time with Milky, for example, given that he’s really the only fully-developed character who is marked as raced), so that although Combo’s a bit of a monster, he’s not purely awful, and he’s clearly felt disenfranchised for much of his life. That said, the politics of the time (Thatcher’s) do clearly and often explicitly shape how they feel about the world. It does feel a little bit of a shame that there’s no explicit counter to Combo’s racism, especially given that between Woody standing up to a guy who he owes for taking the fall for him, and Pukey standing up to Combo once it’s clear the man is more than capable of violence a the drop of a hat, both would seem to have reasonably solid views about how and why Combo’s wrong (though perhaps Meadows felt it might have been too moralistic to do this, which it could have been…) Nonetheless, I think it’s interesting to see how deeply local, deeply specific this story is, even as, doubtless, stories like it occurred across the UK at about this time. The anger and distrust which seem to characterise many of these Yoof is beautifully set alongside their warmth and generosity to each other without it being ‘underlying heart-of-gold’-y. In the end, it testifies to a time, a place and a people, permitting the depiction of the politics to arise out of that rather than the other way around. So few movies manage to bind together specificity and national politics like this that I would recommend it for that alone…