The Archaeology of Aggro by Tom Jennings
[film review of This Is England, directed by Shane Meadows, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 14, July 2007]
The latest project from the foremost cinematic chronicler of contemporary Britain is, unexpectedly, a period piece depicting the 1983 rites of passage of 12-year-old Shaun (Tommo Turgoose) finding acceptance among skinhead scoundrels convivial enough to include Milky, a Black lad (Andrew Shim), punks, and even New Romantics. Their summertime teenage kicks are then disrupted by the arrival of the charismatic Combo (Stephen Graham), who has incorporated fascist rhetoric picked up in the nick into a bitter, resentful worldview. Gang members refusing to kowtow melt away, and Combo leads those remaining into National Front meetings and increasingly malevolent racist attacks – until the brutal beating of Milky awakens Shaun from thralldom to this bad surrogate dad.
Based on writer-director Shane Meadows’ own memories, the flawless filming and pitch-perfect performances beautifully capture the peer group mitigation of adolescent pain metamorphosing into adult conflict. Richard Griffin (Freedom, June 30th) has already discussed skinhead class orientation, diversity and ambivalence (and in the industrial town of my 1970s youth, two-tone adherents included middle-class and Jewish kids as well as working-class misfits into music and style; whereas the most violent were not necessarily racist). However, whether in subcultures or the mainstream, surface multiculturalism can merely mask rather than undermine prejudice. This Is England glimpses such complexity before, regrettably, backing hastily away.
The best UK social realism painstakingly conveys the texture of experience in precise times and places – here, the fallout from Thatcherism and the Falklands tantalisingly paralleling New Labour and Iraq. However, just as denial, displacement and repression influence psychological development, wider socio-cultural processes weaving dominant discourses into everyday life get lost in translation into individual perspective. For example, vicious attitudes towards Black and Asian people have deep roots in white working-class areas – particularly among ‘respectable’ elders – which eroded as younger generations growing up together suffered similar institutional contempt. Nevertheless, housing, policing and immigration policies consistently revitalise them; so alien ideologists may parachute in to vampirise youth aggravation, but community and official collusion (conscious or not) seals the deal. Of course, such commonplace tacit support for hatred failed to register in Shaun’s awareness, and thus elude This Is England.
Meadows doubtless understands this problem, but went along with the media marketing spin which Richard Griffin rightly sees as a misconceived attempt “to reclaim the skinhead movement” – whereas greater depth and breadth hover right at the film’s heart. Backstories were developed for the characters during lengthy rehearsals, and Combo being mixed-race fortuitously arose from the fact that Stephen Graham is too (accepting the role with great trepidation). Unfortunately, the golden opportunity to unravel the implications of intrinsic impurity and hybridity throughout this mongrel nation’s history was forfeited by isolating pathology in dysfunctional families – a persuasive, if predictable, macho mythos both in the microdynamics of violence and as metaphor for the disarray of Englishness. The result is surely superb cinema, but higher ambition could have achieved so much more.