Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 10: This Is England

Take a minute to watch the opening montage of This Is England, it’ll put us on better terms to talk about who I think is pound for pound the greatest filmmaker to start his work in this decade.

Now that’s a fucking montage. I’ve never been to England, and my only knowledge of its history in the eighties comes from the frenzied rants of David Peace (Whose books have more or less convinced me to never visit your lovely country. No offence but if he’s correct you’re all terrible terrible people) and Alan Moore, where from what I can glean you guys actually elected your Sarah Palin and went and stomped the shit out of Argentina just to show you could (If any of my readers in the UK wish to correct me please do so. Actually please comment anyway, I’ve been wanting to get the thoughts of a real life British person on this movie for quite awhile). But from the opening frames I can feel the place in my bones, That montage tells you nothing at all. But at the same time it tells you everything.

Shane Meadows is the new Martin Scorsese. That’s not something I say lightly, as Scorsese is the filmmaker I hold dearest above all others.For some, saying that would be a complement, maybe even a boast. For me it’s damn near a canonization. To say I’m Scorsese super freak would be an understatement, if you’ve ever seen the movie Ratatouille that really should give you the best idea of the one sided mentorship I have with him. There’s basically a tiny Scorsese floating above my shoulder at any given moment. There is also the possibility that I’m utterly insane but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

The point is when I say Meadows has captured the vitality, style, feel, and ferocity of Scorsese in his prime with This Is England (And Dead Man’s Shoes, and Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, and well you get my point), you know I’m not saying it idly. This Is England follows a young boy, named Shaun who falls in with a group of skinheads, he’s young, troubled, has recently lost his father, and the acceptance and comradery they give young Shane is like Manna from heaven. At the time the groups not a bad influence on him, The Skin Heads had yet to become affiliated with Neo Nazism and were no different from any rowdy group that adolescent boys usually fall in with for a time. But when former members start getting out of prison, hardened and with a gleam of zealotry start talking about The National Front, things very quickly go to shit. This Is England shares many things in common with Meadows early films (and as I said before Scorsese), the environments aren’t merely passive backgrounds but come on so strong that they are practically tactile, the tone and dialogue have a kind of jocular menace to them, anything can happen at anytime especially when the players are at there most relaxed. Most of Meadows films have been about this, the way that good natured male ball busting, and piss taking can erupt into violence over something as meaningless as inflection. But this time he’s doing all these things on a greater scale, This Is England is the same kind of leap that Taxi Driver was from Mean Streets, the announcement that talent may have cured into genius.

Meadows has Scorsese’s gift for capturing the feeling of a particular time and place utterly in the small details of his mileu, he shares Scorsese’s gift for encapsulating how working class groups interact and as I said, how good natured ball busting can shift to violence at the drop of the hat, and he shares Scorsese’s fascination with violence and maturity and where the two intersect. Though few Scorsese heroes have passed that terrible test quite as well as Meadow's young hero, despite the terrible price Shaun has to pay.

Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and Dead Man’s Shoes were both interesting films, but unmistakably warm-ups, This Is England shows Meadow’s in full command of his gifts, making for my money the best film about the transition from Childhood to Adolescence since The 400 Blows.

Its Meadow’s knack with character, that makes his work so powerful. He works in quick broad sketches that none the less ring true, setting up Shaun and his loneliness, isolation, and almost perfect pliability in the first short scenes. Meadow’s ability with characters serves him well again allowing him to create a sense of community in the first scene they appear in (Again quite Scorsese Like).

Anchored by a charismatic performance by Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure as Woody and Jo a Skinhead power couple, unable to fight off the influences in their ranks. Meadows smartly makes them very human characters, small moments (Scorsese like moments OK I promise I’ll stop) that another filmmaker would gloss over an ignore, like when the character who would normally be summed up as “The fat one” gets a moment to express his anxieties and doubts, or when the group reverts back to a bunch of nervous little kids when faced with a scolding from Shaun’s mother. From the word go you understand why Shaun wants to be like them, they’re funny, cool, and they actually seem to like him. Meadow’s is equally adept at portraying the nearly narcotic bliss of belonging that Shaun experiences with the skinheads. A misfit getting to belong for the first time.

Why wouldn’t he devote himself to them? Why wouldn’t he make excuses? Why wouldn’t he turn a blind eye when everything starts to go to shit? The opening half of the movie is so purely pleasurable, that we’d almost like to believe that This Is England can remain such, a gentle Linklaterian observation of a time and place. But of course its not to be.

If you weere to tell me that one of my favorite characters actors of the decade would end up being that Goofy Guy from Snatch whose defining characteristic was that he wasn’t Jason Statham, I would have probably told you that you where fucking insane. But Stephen Graham is so good in this that I didn’t even realize who he was until I recognized him in Public Enemies and looked him up.

He’s terrifying in this. The ultra alpha, the dark clump at the heart of the movement that metastases and ignites a wave of terrible violence that’ll happen whenever you can convince people that they’re poor, fucked and its all someone else’s fault. Graham walks a tightrope in this roll, he’s enough of an Alpha dog to be able to convincingly take over the group, but he’s got enough charisma and genuine intelligence to make it work. Its not like he’s some mustache twiller that comes and strong arms the gang. He just comes in, and lays down his propaganda with such skill that poor kind hearted Woody has no chance of holding on to control.

Everyday that Graham runs the gang, everyday things get a little darker and more out of control. Everyday Shaun has a chance to step away, to wake up. But of course he never does, few of us ever do. Shaun pays a terrible price for his complacency, or more accurately he has it paid for him and is at least cognoscente enough to realize this. The ending of This Is England is as terrible as it is inevitable. But its tinged with a hard earned hopefulness, Shaun finally finds the strength to reject the dream that has long since curdled. It takes a lot to walk away from the things that have protected you, the things that have made you feel like a person even when they’re obviously corrupt, but its something we all have to do at one time or another. Meadow’s captures the moment with the command of a virtuoso. And the thing that excites me most about This Is England, is I think he's still just getting warmed up.

1 comment:

MrJeffery said...

fabulous film. good choice!