British filmmaker Shane Meadow’s (Once Upon a Time In the Midlands) newest movie This Is England is a difficult watch. The film is a semi-autobiographical story of Meadow’s youth in England and his participation in skin-head groups in the midst of the turbulent 1980’s. It chronicles a small part of the life of thirteen year old Shaun (played brilliantly by young Thomas Turgoose), a fatherless, oft-bullied, rather poor, but fairly good natured kid who falls in with a crowd of profane and dangerous, but friendly, skinheads. Thomas, whose father died while fighting in the Falklands, is in desperate need of a friend and to him these older (and cooler) kids who welcome him into their circle aren’t mean spirited or extremists. Rather, and ironically, they are indeed friends, people who actually treat him as a human being and who respect him. And, more pragmatically, whereas he used to get beat up in the past, now Thomas was on the opposite end of a swinging fist.
While a part a of their gang Thomas meets a “National Front” member named Combo who takes the kid under his wing and, in a way, adopts him as his own. He becomes a sort of mentor to Thomas (though more like an older brother than a father) and fills his head with skin-head, white nationalist, extremist propaganda. Unfortunately, Thomas buys into Combo’s white nationalist and racist beliefs and prejudices and the film ends in a violent and stunningly powerful climax. However, I don’t really intend to write a review here as much as make a few observations regarding a moment in the film that I found particularly moving.
Towards the end of the film Combo confronts a member of their gang, an African American named Milky, and asks him about his family. Milky tells Combo that he comes from a large family and that while his father isn’t around much — because he works away from home for long periods of time — he respects his dad because there is always food on the table and he never had to go hungry. His father loved his family and worked to make them happy and give them the best life he could. In response, Combo, full of curious rage, insists that Milky tell him what makes a bad dad. In and of itself this conversation may seem fairly inconsequential but in the context of the film it is heart breaking and dramatic.
This idea of a “good dad” is central, I think, to the film. It’s not so much about what makes good parenting as it is about what happens when people are not loved and cared for. These skin heads are, at least in all initial appearances, nice to young Thomas. But what they teach him to be is selfish, to believe that the world owes him something, and to make other people give him what he wants or feels he deserves. It is clear that these young men and women are people that have never known what it is to be loved. No one has ever shown them compassion.
In another scene Combo tells a young woman name Lol that he loves her and “has always loved” her. In recalling a night they had together he calls it “beautiful” but to her it was gross and demeaning. She was drunk and 16 and does all she can to forget it. To Combo that one night stand was the greatest night of his life and a beautiful testament to his affections for her. Sadly, he has no real conception of what true love is. To him this one night of drunken, sexual passion is love. To him, teaching an impressionable, young kid to take all he can and make others do his every beck and call is compassion. In the end he is humbled and Shaun is forced to determine for himself what is true love and what is true compassion, and also, what it means to be a man.
Jeffrey Overstreet points out in his review of the film over at Looking Closer that in one scene the gang walks beneath a lighted sign for a Church of Christ. But while the sign shines brightly the church is empty and the kids walk on by. The irony is, of course, as Overstreet points out, that from even this building, a building from which compassion ought to flow freely, not a single sole has stepped out to help these defeated and confused young people. Thankfully, films like this, despite their “down” subject matter and darker moments, can help viewers remember that all around us people are hurting and starving for compassion and love. Everyday people walk past us and we have the choice to be either open to them and pour forth compassion, or we can let the light shine on and on and on and let them pass. Some will say (including me, too often), the light is bright; that is enough, isn’t it? Well, This Is England, suggests, I think, that it is not.
Note: This is England is not a film to watch with your families. It contains a GREAT deal of profanity and some frank sexual references as well as drug use and violence. As I mentioned, it is not an easy watch, but it’s a profound one and well worth 107 minutes of your time.