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This Is England

British writer-director Shane Meadows returns to stunning form with this largely autobiographical snapshot of life in '80s Britain under the rule of Margaret Thatcher. He underscores the central character's rites of passage with earthy humour and wonderful attention to detail, like the eye-catching fashions and an opening credits sequence awash with iconic images of the era (Rubik's Cube, Duran Duran, Knight Rider, Galaxian, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer). Struggling to cope with the death of his father in the Falklands War, adolescent loner Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) becomes isolated from his caring mother Cynth (Jo Hartley) and the other residents of his rundown council estate. By chance, he forges unexpected friendships with skinhead rebel Woody (Joe Gilgun) and his merry band of misfits, including Milky (Andrew Shim) and Boy George fan Smell (Rosamund Hanson). Indeed, Shaun develops a crush on Smell and the young couple steal nervous kisses away from the rest of the group. The volatile dynamics of Woody's gang shift uneasily when one-time jailbird Combo (Stephen Graham) returns to the estate and begins to exert his influence, encouraging the disaffected and highly impressionable youngsters to pledge their allegiance to the National Front. When some of the teenagers voice their concerns, Combo quickly soothes their fears. "Look at all these people," he tells his acolytes. "If it weren't right, would all these people be here?" Inevitably, racial tensions are inflamed with tragic repercussions for the film's emotionally devastating final act. This Is England obliterates all those unhappy memories of Meadows' previous two films, Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and Dead Man's Shoes, which played loose and fast with genres to such disastrous effect. This new picture is a return to the smaller, more intimate character studies which Meadows crafts so beautifully, eliciting a stunning performance from newcomer Turgoose as the cheeky urchin craving a male influence in his life. He is an endearing presence, completely unselfconscious and real in front of the camera. Banter between the youngsters crackles with energy - "Never knew Keith Chegwin had a son!" jokes Woody and the gang when they first meet Shaun. Graham is a brooding, intimidating presence. Initial scenes between Combo and Shaun suggest that the ex-con might become a surrogate father to the youngster. "Nobody's ever taken a swing like that at me," chuckles Combo after the teenager playfully sends a punch his way. "It's like looking in the mirror 20 years ago when I was 12!" However, once Combo begins to reveal his darker side - "Do you consider yourself English or Jamaican?" he asks Milky menacingly - our discomfort intensifies. Supporting cast is equally impressive, the cameras capturing every nuance as the narrative lurches towards its horribly inevitable conclusion, sounding a death knell for childhood innocence.