(Spoiler warning: Some spoilers for the film This is England follow. You may wish to see the film before reading this post.)
The above clip of a young skinhead’s induction into his club of friends is one of the sweetest moments in Shane Meadows’ new film, This is England. It resonated with me partly because I’m biased toward remembering subcultural rites of passage fondly. I wasn’t a skinhead, though, so the hair didn’t come off, it just got dyed fuchsia. While I promise pictures will follow at a later date, this post is about this fine new film, not my hair.
The rituals carried out to welcome a new person into a subcultural group serve a purpose for more than just the inductee. The veterans have their sense of unity reinforced as they remember how they met their friends. Everyone is given a chance to recall what it felt like to be delivered from teenage outsider isolation into a family that cared about you and looked out for you possibly more than your own biological one ever did.
The hair falls to the floor and young Shaun (played by newcomer Thomas Turgoose) gains a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, as with any coming-of-age tale, the innocence is confined to Act One. When an old friend of the gang returns from a recent prison stay, his racism splits the group and he persuades an impressionable Shaun to stay on the wrong side of the divide.
Easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year, This is England sees exceptional performances from each of its actors, a soundtrack full of ska classics (I do love hearing Toots and the Maytals on a cinema sound system) and a superb period recreation of early 1980s England. In some ways it’s a skinhead Quadrophenia, which the film directly references with its shot of the full ensemble cast lined up against a wall on its promotional poster. However where The Who’s film focuses on the internal struggle of a boy finding himself, Meadows’ story is as much about an era’s and a country’s identity crisis as it is about one boy growing up.
Offering a complex depiction of racial violence, it is a story every bit as relevant to 2007 as to 1983. This makes it all the more frustrating that the British Board of Film Classification gave This is England an 18 certificate, citing “realistic violence and racist language” as its reason for keeping any person under 18 from seeing it without parental consent. Meadows sadly notes that “the film is now unavailable to the audience it will benefit the most”.
After seeing this film, I’m completely at a loss as to how this would get an 18 certification when so many more violent films receive 15s and 12s. In the above news segment, the BBFC representative attempts to single This is England out by noting that its violence dwells on the infliction of pain. Somehow this is more harmful than other kinds of non-pain-focused violence?
The most recent James Bond film, Casino Royale, received a 12 certificate from the BBFC. Aside from numerous instances of hand-to-hand and weapons-based combat as well as massive explosions, there was a particularly memorable scene of graphic torture. I’m 32 years old and when the big bad captures Bond, strips him naked and proceeds to penalise his, um, penis, well… I’m still emotionally scarred. But at least it was educational. Kids may not learn about the history of racism and youth culture in their country, but they will know that if they become MI5 spies, they should avoid capture by Le Chiffre, because he is prone to go straight for the penis.
All Meadows has asked for is a 15 certification, which thankfully Bristol’s City Council has had the good sense to grant. Following an appeal by Mark Cosgrove, Head of Watershed Media Centre’s Film Programme, the Bristol City Council’s licensing committee unanimously voted in favour of reclassifying the film. Hopefully other enlightened city councils will do likewise and give more young people access to this great film. If twelve year-olds can go to the cinema on their own to see a baddie bludgeon Bond’s bollocks, certainly young people three years older than them should be able to watch an intelligent movie about growing up dangerously.
UPDATE (13 May 2007): Westminster City Council has followed Bristol’s example and lowered the film’s certification to 15.