Viewer's Discretion: A dark look at 1980s British culture
Imagine living in a dystopian society. If you lived in England in the 1980s, and you weren't of a certain class, you didn't have to imagine, you were there. The view on the street was a lot worse than the one presented in the media there, full of Mrs. Thatcher's control as a solution for prosperity, and glittery pop stars that had nothing to do with your life. The road from 1977 and Johnny Rotten singing about no future was a straight one. Nothing had changed but the publicity.
Celebrating the people stricken by this reality is Shane Meadows' "This Is England," which started life as a standalone film about a kid named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) who becomes involved with a Nazi skinhead. A TV-series trilogy sequel followed, of which "This Is England '86" is the first, featuring Meadows teaming-up with screenwriter Jack Thorne to flesh out and extend the concepts in a wide-reaching and wholly original drama. The series catches up with Shaun, now a typical British teenager who struggles to navigate an England that offers no desirable future and while he also has to come to terms with the fact life moves on for his widow mother (Jo Hartley).
It also marks Shaun's first encounter after several years with the group of skinheads he encountered in the film, who changed his life following the death of his father in the Falklands. All victims of a country living a patriotic lie while it's citizens face hopelessness, we find the skinhead group surviving and moving past the violent traumas of the first film. Notably Woody (the lively and magnetic Joseph Gilgun) and Lol (Vicky McClure) are preparing to get married, though there are some bumps ahead in their relationship as they transition into the realities of adulthood.
There's a darker trauma on the horizon for Lol, as well. Her father, Mick, (Johnny Harris at his most disturbing) has returned to make good with his family, though Lol rejects him. That's because there's a monster lurking within him, one that Lol has faced too many times before, and the intensity of it functions as an overwhelming political and social parable, as well as a manifestation of national decay and a personal nightmare, careening into two immensely disturbing scenes that are as crucial as they are hard to watch. But if the ugliness portrayed in these scenes threaten to overtake the show in tone and message, that never materializes. Meadows understands that life is a collision of emotions, overruling each other in impact constantly.
"This Is England" is television like you've never encountered: at one moment, a madcap punk rock romp, while the next a vicious and terrifying portrayal of assault and the psychological cancer lurking at the center of British life. It's the series' ability to mix these two, and multiple other circumstances, to acknowledge that life is neither happy nor sad, good nor bad, thrilling nor nightmarish, but a cascading combination of all of these, the important point being that so many people don't control which circumstance they encounter. Most people, particularly in oppressive societies and suffering from economical disadvantage, are just on a ride that they don't control. And there are parts of what "This Is England" shows that feels more like a mirror than a camera.
It's the kind of show that will destroy your heart even as it affirms life for you.
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