This is England

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Finally rented This is England the other night. The film takes place in 1983 and details the transformation of Shaun, a lonely 12 year boy with an old man’s face, into a hardened skinhead. Having lost his father in the Falklands War, Shaun finds himself picked on for that, and for the crime of wearing flared pants.

He’s taken under the wing of the cheerful and conscientious Woody, the unofficial leader of a gang of teenage skinheads. Woody’s gang is hard-scrabble and working class and are echoes of the original skinhead movement, which was based on a love of Caribbean music and Ska and the gangs then tended to be racially mixed. He even gets a girlfriend named Smell, a kind of Yana Lumb with Boy George’s fashion sense.

Things go south for Shaun when Woody’s friend Combo is released from prison and starts going on a recruiting drive for the National Front. Woody rejects the racist ideology his friend has embraced but Shaun chooses to stay with Combo and the film moves toward a tragic finale.

While at its heart, the story is of father figures and identity politics, the movie also underlines how politics in Europe tends to sway to more extreme, harder ends than here in moderate but kind of right of centre Canada. It always seems as though Britain or France or Germany are one national crisis away from voting in one gang of thugs or another.

The film is excellent and richly detailed portrait of a period when a subculture was being co-opted into something awful. Thanks to a friend who became a Neo-Nazi, I always assumed all skinheads were racist and didn’t know about the original history until much later. By the way, I spent a lot of time trying to talk him out of his new identity but, sadly, to no avail.

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