Billy B’s review published on Letterboxd:
In this post-Brexit age of cultural division and “divide and conquer” politics, ‘This Is England’ resonates just as much now as it ever has. The film follows young Shaun, played brilliantly by a 13-year-old (13?!) Thomas Turgoose, growing up in Nottingham in 1983. After the death of his father in the Falklands War leads to troubles at school, he grows close to a gang of skinheads, who accept him as a member. However, things take a turn for the worse when Stephen Graham’s Combo is released from prison, bringing his far-right, white nationalist views with him. Meadows has a knack for obtaining performances from his actors that are both terrifying and realistic in equal measure. He did it with Paddy Considine in ‘A Room For Romeo Brass’, and he does it here with Graham too, resulting in a performance that channels the horror of Combo’s ideology, while also attempting to explore the backstory that led him to this point.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and Shaun’s early exploits with his new friends paint a vivid, almost nostalgic, picture of early-80s Britain. Mod and skinhead subcultures inspire much of the film’s style, as recognised in the Doc Martens and Ben Sherman’s the gang wear, as well as the ska and reggae they listen to. This evocative representation also allows ‘This is England’ to become something of a social history document, especially when you take into account the way Combo’s actions tear the group apart. The pervasive influence of organisations like the National Front in the 1980s created a widespread belief that skinhead culture was associated with the far-right, an association that still prevails today.
The infiltration of culture by hateful groups and individuals is a major theme in the film, as is the ever-common topic of falling in with the wrong crowd. Shaun’s vulnerability allows him to be taken under the wing of Woody and his friends, at first seemingly harmlessly. But when Combo arrives, Shaun is soon manipulated, with barely any time to challenge or even question the views he now finds himself with. One quote in particular epitomises the way certain members of the gang fail to confront racist attitudes: while attending a National Front meeting, Gadget discounts Pukey’s concerns by remarking: “If it wasn’t right, all these people wouldn’t be here.” With many people still having a worryingly laissez-faire approach to views as extreme as the ones on display in Shane Meadows’ powerful masterpiece, it’s no wonder that hate continues to thrive. That, ultimately, is the message at the heart of ‘This is England’.