Innocence lost among the skinheads

Set in 1983—just as the English skinhead youth subculture was losing sight of its working-class, Jamaican-influenced origins and descending into anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and violence—Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This Is England suggests that the skinheads’ hatred was fueled not only by nationalism and xenophobia, but also by the psychological wounds afflicted by poverty, political powerlessness, and family abuse. The movie follows Shaun (played ably and movingly by Thomas Turgoose, who would have been roughly 13 when the film was shot, but who looks even younger on screen), a poor boy whose father was killed in the Falklands, as he finds friends among a group of amiable, non-racist teenage skinheads, and then later falls under the sway of Combo (played by Stephen Graham), an older, unstable, and dangerous skinhead of the racist/nationalist variety.

Shaun is the film’s emotional heart, and he’s a very sympathetic figure: it’s easy to feel for him as he grieves for his father and struggles to find friends who’ll accept him despite his poverty. But it’s in the character of Combo where the film’s underlying ideas find their expression: Graham plays him convincingly as a wounded, disaffected young man, who, furious at his own poverty and lack of opportunity, mistakingly directs his anger toward immigrants, rather than toward the government policies and broader economic circumstances that are the actual sources of his problems. But Combo is also the son of an abusive father—and it’s extremely revealing when he can’t bear to hear Milky (the lone black member of Shaun’s circle of skinhead friends, played by Andrew Shim) talk about the happy (if poor) life led by the many members of his Jamaican immigrant family. Combo presents a facade of toughness—and is violent indeed—but he’s also an emotional wreck, damaged by his childhood and heartbroken over what he sees as a betrayal by a young woman who he’d dreamed about throughout his entire time in prison. Meadows shows us the pain that shaped Combo into the confused and monstrous man he’s become—and because of this, we fear for fatherless Shaun, who’s particularly susceptible to Combo’s arguments and charisma, given his own poverty, naiveté, and pain.

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