British director Shane Meadows' strongest film to date is also his most personal: A stylish fictionalization of his own wayward youth, spent among a group of working-class skinheads in Thatcher's England. July 1983: Charles and Diana are married, unemployment in the U.K. has soared to a staggering 3.3 million, and though England's war with Argentina...read more
British director Shane Meadows' strongest film to date is also his most personal: A stylish fictionalization of his own wayward youth, spent among a group of working-class skinheads in Thatcher's England.
July 1983: Charles and Diana are married, unemployment in the U.K. has soared to a staggering 3.3 million, and though England's war with Argentina over the sheep-filled Falkland Islands is largely seen by much of the world as a bizarre joke, British soldiers are in fact dying far from home. Among those killed is the father of 12-year-old Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose), a towheaded scrapper who lives with his widowed mum (Jo Hartley) in a drab, coastal-town row house. Shaun is miserable at home and even unhappier at school, where it seems everyone, from 2-Tone suedeheads and latter-day punks to New Romantics and first-generation Goths, has found his or her subculture niche. Teased mercilessly for his out-of-fashion flares, Shaun is soon taken under the wing of Woody (Joseph Gilgun), a gregarious, older skinhead whose diverse group of friends captures the true spirit of the original '60s skins: style-mad working-class youths who exchanged the Mods' mania for bespoke suits, back-combed bouffants and American R&B for close-cropped hair, Ben Sherman shirts, Doc Martens boots and Jamaican ska. As opposed to the all-male, all-white makeup of other skinhead groups, Woody's apolitical crew includes his gutsy girlfriend Lol (Vicky McLure) and her friends, and Milky (Andrew Shim), a first-generation Anglo-Jamaican whom racist skins would never have accepted.
Shaun undergoes a complete skinhead makeover Lol provides the buzz cut, Woody the Ben Sherman and he gets an early introduction to sex courtesy of Smell (Rosamund Hanson), a New Waver in Boy George kabuki makeup. But a pall is cast over this happy bunch when Woody's old mate Combo (the excellent Stephen Graham) gets out of prison. Older and rougher around the edges than the carefree Woody, Combo has a drastically different political point of view: He's a hardened racist with a dangerous "England for the English" rant who blames the soaring unemployment and housing shortage on all the immigrants streaming into the country, particularly the "Pakis." Woody's failure to stand up to Combo and defend Milky is the first chip in the pedestal on which Shaun has put him; Combo's seductive appeal to the pain and anger Shaun feels over the death of his father demolishes that pedestal altogether. When Combo smears a line of spit on the floor to separate himself from Woody, Shaun is among those who cross it.
Shaun's dark journey into an English heartland where ultra-right, National Front thugs successfully tap into the growing alienation of working-class youth is a frighteningly accurate depiction of the seductive power of hate. But Meadows undercuts it: Always prone to broad strokes and symbols, he ultimately attributes Combo's beliefs to individual psychosis rather than political misdirection, to which everyone is susceptible. But it's his story and he gets the details exactly right. What he doesn't pull directly from memory he draws from all the right sources, from Nick Knight's photo-essay Skinhead to the ska hits of the era.
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