Taut, tense, and self-consciously stylish, This Is England is built just like its hero, Thomas Turgoose, a 12-year-old Midlands runt who flees the fluttery attentiveness of his hippie-ish widowed mother and falls in with a crowd of skinheads in the thick of the Thatcher era. Like all of Shane Meadows' work to date, his latest captures the simple pleasures of hanging out with a big group of friends, laughing at nothing. And it shows how easily that camaraderie can shade into hooliganism.
The main difference between This Is England and the rest of the films Meadows has written and directed is that it's more deliberate about what it's trying to say. Meadows has all but mastered the art of making idleness interesting, and now he's trying to work that "wasted afternoon" mood into a plot with a complicated point. In This Is England, Meadows first introduces Joe Gilgun, a good-natured, all-inclusive skinhead who essentially orders his tribe to take Turgoose in. Then, when everything's going well, Meadows brings in Stephen Graham, a charismatic ex-con who splinters the skinheads into factions of easygoing Rude Boys and hard-line National Front-ers. Turgoose—accustomed to being picked on at school, and on constant cruelty alert with his new friends—sides with the more aggressive Graham, who promises Turgoose a worldview that'll help him come to grips with losing his father in the Falklands War.
Any similarities between Graham's anti-immigrant, anti-Arab rants and present-day anxieties are wholly intentional, but aren't really the main thrust of Meadows' multi-allegorical history play. Though he gets distracted by romantic subplots and heavy-footed speeches, Meadows mainly wants This Is England to be a perfectly preserved time capsule of the Midlands in the summer of '83, when conflicting pop-culture waves washed across the UK and poured into the exurban Council flats and strip malls. This was also the summer after the Falklands, when Margaret Thatcher made a show of colonial muscle to remind the electorate of what was. Meadows encapsulates one of This Is England's messages in a touching late scene, when Turgoose looks at a portrait of his father in uniform, and declares it "my favorite picture." Meanwhile, just over Turgoose's shoulder hangs a photo of his dad relaxing by the sea, every bit the affable English gent. Without overstating the point, Meadows makes it clear that when it comes to embodying the ideal of his country, he knows which picture he prefers.