Sunday, 19 December 2010

'00 Ten Part Four: "This Is England" (2007)

It's through sheer chance that, since rewatching This Is England for this entry into my list, I've also watched the TV drama serial-cum-sequel This Is England '86. Although I don't want to take up a great deal of space reviewing the series rather than the film, it does give a useful launch pad for the reasons why I've included This Is England in my ten.

Whilst one of the most emotionally pummelling and, at times, truly gruelling TV series I have ever watched, This Is England '86 is also one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and well crafted pieces of television I have seen for some time. Its overwhelming success was only possible from the outset, however, due to the original film from which it came. Whilst my admiration of TIE was already secured before I watched the TV sequel, watching the series served to highlight even further all the things that really are special about the original film.

Essentially, the series would not have worked if the film which it follows wasn't so brilliant. That's not to take anything away from the series, and also makes it seem as though it's simply a cash-in by TIE writer and director Shane Meadows, which it isn't. Meadows himself said that he wanted to make '86 because of the wealth of opportunities and untold stories that the film left behind. Again, that's not a criticism of the film, being as it is a tight and masterfully crafted piece with a definite beginning, middle and end. The two complement each other beautifully, but the fact remains that '86 could not exist in the way it does without TIE.

Meadows is a master of characterisation, as demonstrated throughout his canon of films. But nowhere is this skill more finely demonstrated than in This Is England. Shaun, the main character, is portrayed superbly by Thomas Turgoose (incidentally, another reason why TIE is deserving of its place here is that it's the only film I've seen since 1999's The Sixth Sense where the main character is played by a child, and yet not only was I not irritated by them once, but I didn't even consider the fact that they were a child, seeing them simply as an actor so strong and mature was their performance). Turgoose's performance is by turns humorous and sympathetic, but always incredibly genuine. From the moment you first see Shaun, you can relate to him. He's clearly an ordinary boy from an ordinary upbringing. And yet the things he experiences, both preceding period the film covers and during the story we see, are never short of extraordinary. The relationship Shaun still has with his late father, both vicariously through his mother and through the raw emotions he harbours inside him about his death in the Falklands war, is incredibly touching. But it is the keen juxtaposition of the tenderness of Shaun's feelings towards his father, and the extreme consequences of the decisions he makes based upon these feelings throughout the story, that provide the emotional driving force which runs through Meadows' film.

Opposite Turgoose is Stephen Graham as Combo. In Combo, Meadows and Graham have jointly created one of the most fascinatingly compelling characters in cinema. Combo shares traits with Hitchcock's Norman Bates and Coppola's Michael Corleone. From the first moment you see Combo on screen, his every scene is loaded with such energy and power through the performance of Graham and the writing of Meadows. His scenes are simultaneously captivating and excruciating to watch. The mastery behind the character is the sense we get that what we see is only a very small part of who Combo is; underneath there is a great deal more going on.

Outwardly, Combo is a racist bully, a powder keg that can - and frequently does - explode without prior warning. He is manipulative and power hungry. But it's the subtle touches, the short scenes that could so easily be overlooked in the overall story of the film, that make Combo such a brilliant creation. Way below the hardened and volatile exterior, Combo is also an emotional and proud creature. The scene which he shares with Lol (within the perfectly chosen claustrophobic confines of a car) during which we learn a little more about the two characters' previous relationship, exposes a depth to Combo which takes us aback when compared with what we've seen before. By the end of the film, the character's name takes on a deeper meaning: he truly is a complex combination of a great many elements, meaning that by the end of the film it isn't as easy as we would like it to be to straightforwardly condemn him, despite the atrocities he has clearly committed.

In Shaun and Combo, we undoubtedly find two masterful creations from Meadows. But it is in the supporting characters where Meadows skill genuinely shines. Several other characters feel multi-dimensional and authentic despite the fact that they are largely absent from the majority of the film. Woody is a key example here. Joe Gilgun creates such a likeable character in Woody, and one of the easiest characters to relate to in the entire film, to the point where it's easy to forget that Woody barely features in the second half of the film. Woody provides an important counterbalance to Combo in the film and it is significant that he is largely sidelined once Combo is introduced to the story; it is also a credit to both Gilgun and Meadows that Woody is such an integral part of the film to the point that it is almost difficult to believe that he isn't there right to the very end.

Woody's key role in This Is England '86 also demonstrates how well-crafted he is. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that so many of the more minor characters in This Is England are so masterfully created, the sequel series simply would not have worked as brilliantly well as it did. And through no other character is this demonstrated as well as through Lol. Lol is one of the least prominent characters in the original film. Largely removed from the main story, she receives only one major scene (the one shared with Combo mentioned previously). But it is through the expert craftsmanship of Meadows coupled with a brilliant performance from Vicky McClure that Lol feels real: a peripheral character in Shaun's story, but a key player in other stories not yet told. And Meadows proves this through '86, shifting the focus off Shaun and telling Lol's own story. '86 would not be able to be the powerful, high quality drama series it is if not for the groundwork provided by the original film.

Through This Is England, Shane Meadows demonstrates his incomparable way of creating characters who are as real as they come in cinema. Meadows creates very authentic, very ordinary but very memorable people who have very extraordinary stories to tell. This is a common trend through the entirety of Meadows' cinematic canon, but nowhere is it more apparent and more masterfully demonstrated than through This Is England.

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