AND THIS IS ENGLAND
Evolution is the key to great cinema. Films have to evolve to represent the zeitgeist of their times, and whether they’re set in outer space or a terraced road in the north of England, if a film is to truly connect with someone’s emotions it must in some way mirror them.
As the years go by our opinion of great cinema changes, what shocks alters and what resonates differs. In 1962 British director Tony Richardson created The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and 44 years later Shane Meadows made This Is England. Both of these films feature classic elements of the genre of social realism and both are centred on angry young men, yet it is their differences that provide an insight into how society has changed alongside filmmaking.
Filmed in crackling black and white, Richardson’s work acts as a relentless attack on the right; it shuns consumerism and the ‘well off’. However, true to its time the films sense of rebellion is muted, yet the film is forthright in its opposition to rampant inequality, and the only person made to pay is a reformatory’s Governor whose prize runner disobeys him.
Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find someone who genuinely feels represented by the films supposed protagonist who it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe as a common thief with a chip on his shoulder. This isn’t meant as a slight to the film but there is no doubting it is a child of its time, the issues explored are broad and the approaching of them lacks subtlety, it lacks the darkness and brutality of modern social realism.
Of course, This Is England deals with issues of race and politics but it does it with a personal touch. Specifically the inclusion of a child as the main character gives the film a vital innocence which was lacking in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. As is the case with most films as time goes by, Meadows is far more unrelenting in his portrayal of life; his film grabs you by the throat and forces you to look, whether you want to or not.
This is a key difference between the two eras of filmmaking; Richardson gently suggests this world of hard living to the audience, all the while hinting at a better life over the next hill. But with Meadows there is no hill and no reprieve from the lifestyle, but instead the opportunity to do with it the best you can.
The fact that This Is England is set in 1983 is practically irrelevant at times as parallels can be drawn constantly between the content of the film and the time at which it was released. Most notably the film frequently references the ever controversial Falklands war, showing Margaret Thatcher to be a self serving and belligerent leader. It’s no coincidence that Meadows chose this as a central theme to his social realist work. On the link he said: “Any time a Western superpower goes to war with anybody, it's a very sickening, bullying thing. No different to school kids bullying each other in the playground, when someone who's got so much more mass and size is just grabbing hold of someone and picking them off the floor because they weigh less.” (Film4, N/D)
Evolution is the key. No genre can remain the same and expect to have a continuous effect on the world it is portraying. At the time, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner reflected many people’s feelings of resentment towards those in charge, but it did so in an organised way. This Is England provides an aspect of the extreme that seems to be everywhere in society right now and that shows no signs of dissipating.