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Warning: This post includes a short, direct quote from the film that contains language which some may find offensive. The intention is not to be vulgar but to prove a point.

I distinctly remember learning about the word ‘oxymoron’ at school; a term which I had relished dropping in en passant in my literary criticism…and which I will forever associate with the compound adjective ‘bittersweet’ that had exemplified its meaning, one bleak and cold morning in a bleak and cold classroom. This memory surfaced to my consciousness as I sat watching This Is England (2006), primarily because this film’s coming-of-age narrative set in the rather bleak times of post-colonialist, Thatcherite England exudes a strong element of bittersweetness that is both eloquently and bluntly projected in the film.

This Is England centres on the fling that the protagonist – twelve-year-old Shaun – had with the Skinhead culture. Shaun’s father had been killed in the Falklands war, and being at the fragile threshold of his vulnerable path into manhood, Shaun finds unlikely refuge from bullying, poverty and loneliness in the camaraderie of young but older Skinheads in the neighbourhood. Whilst at this point in the film, the dangerous aspect of such a relationship is depicted mainly through the derelict settings in which the occasionally delinquent actions take place, the viewer is often beguiled into a mixture of empathy, fascination and contentment by the carnivalesque aspect of the gang, particularly Smell’s (Rosamund Hanson) punky style. In this way, the colourful and eccentric aesthetic of the gang’s attire and behaviour transforms into a symbol of the deceitful façade of Thatcher’s society and her rhetoric –excerpts of which punctuate the film and juxtapose with the harrowing images from the conflict-ridden Falklands are also presented.

The latter clips not only give the film a solid grounding into a reality that is not wholly fictitious, but also injects a bitter dose of reason into the rhetoric of the British National Front. Shaun eventually attends one of their meetings in what might be referred to as the 2nd part of the film, when he becomes involved in a more hardcore gang of older skinheads. This scene is an uncomfortable one to watch, not only because it presents a little innocent-looking boy exposed to the racist and bigoted speech that the politician delivers to an audience consisting mainly of tough and grown-up men, but also for the manner in which the propaganda is received. There is little of the Orwellian coldness in this scene and the audience is not instructed to chant slogans. More worryingly, the audience jeers and claps on its own accord, individuals strike other individuals on the head when they dare question the authority of the speech, and the fervent applause that follows is pregnant with the hurt of a community which has lost focus.

Although this film strives to make the point that it is the action of people (particularly those with some form of power) that sows the seeds for violence and social unrest, it is also clear that language and discourse can be equally manipulated for ascent in the politics of power. Combo the older gang’s leader’s emotional speech at the contrastingly bland and dilapidated location he gives it in is memorable. Not only is it so for the internal conflict it creates in the gang – but also for the brilliantly clever and raw word-play in the script.

“Fucking Falklands.

What the fuck’s the Falklands?”

…Rhetorically asks Combo, in what is also possibly stark honesty. Credit is due here to Shane Meadows who is the scriptwriter. His work is strengthened by the amazing performances of Stephen Graham (who plays Combo), but also of Joseph Gilgun (who plays Woody, the younger gang’s leader) and, last but not least, Thomas Turgoose (who plays Shaun). It is largely as a result of the brilliant script and brilliant acting that perhaps the most prominent character in the movie is created and grows alongside the rest – that of England itself.

Only a few weeks have passed since London was hit by the biggest riots it had seen in 30 years, and many elements in this film about the early 1980s – the political environment, news about British military interventions abroad and the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ – sound like something out of today’s news bulletin. Whilst ‘bittersweetness’ might somewhat rationally be accepted as the natural order of things, especially when sugar-coated by nostalgia of a time span that is now past , cinematographic art like This Is England does well to shake us from our collective stupor into adjusting the equilibrium of our very own oxymorons.

Highly recommended.

This Is England – Trailer:

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This film also reminded me of the following poem by William Blake, entitled London.

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