Since the kitchen-sink boom of the British New Wave in the late fifties, British film has seen an abundance of realist dramas and true-to-life tales of the everyday. Very few of these snippets of real life have managed to capture the emotional strength, power and depth of Shane Meadow’s productions.
With titles such as This is England, Dead Man’s Shoes and A Room for Romeo Brass, the king of verisimilitude has touched upon stories of love, hate, violence, racism, mental health, manslaughter and war. Contrasted against the mundane backdrop of various midland towns and urban areas, these heavy emotional and visceral subjects get dealt with head-on and direct, rather than being washed-over with abstract metaphor or relocated to a glamorous setting.
A working class man himself, Shane Meadows’ early life didn’t point towards a directorial career, pastimes born out of his environment consisted of being bullied, getting caught up in petty crime and generally experiencing Midland life first-hand. Meadows’ love for cinema was as strong then as it is now, and so he began making short films in his local community and getting involved with his friend’s make-shift film club. Staying true to his own life and knowledge, Shane’s films always include a generous portion of himself in the final production.
[su_heading size=”14″ margin=”10″]Laying the foundations for a new style of storytelling – A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) [/su_heading]
The story of two boys bound together by an infectious friendship, caught up in a world of brutal violence in the form of beatings from everyone around them, is 1999’s A Room for Romeo Brass. Even in this early film Meadows had laid the foundations for his later work, the appearance of future ‘house-actor’ Andrew Shim and long-time collaborator Paddy Considine, along with the settings and themes present, were key to developing his style as a true auteur of film.
Romeo (Shim) is a 12 year old boy who spends his days with his best friend Gavin (Ben Marshall), who suffers from a spinal issue. The two boys are victimised by beatings from older teenagers and are trying to understand the world around them. When Morell (Considine) sticks up for the boys during one of their routine beatings, it becomes clear that he is interested in Romeo’s older sister, and so unfolds a narrative of friendship, love, manipulation, rejection and trust.
[su_heading size=”14″ margin=”10″]Down the darker path – Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)[/su_heading]
In Shane Meadow’s 2004 psychological thriller Dead Man’s Shoes, the familiar settings and themes of towns, communities, friendships and coming-of-age tribulations are drowned out by a horrific tale of depression, mental health, betrayal and violence. Suddenly the playground beatings of previous films become something more serious and difficult to watch, saddening and shocking to the core.
Inspired by an event that happened to one of Meadows’ friends, Dead Man’s Shoes follows Richard, a man in his early thirties who has just returned to his home town in the Peak District after he served time in the army on deployment. Reunited with his younger brother Anthony, Richard soon learns that Anthony has been abused by a gang of drop outs and small-time drug dealers while he was away. Anthony is shown to be suffering from mental difficulties, and therefore has been an easy target for the group of men to manipulate, humiliate and abuse. Upon learning this, Richard sets on a path of revenge and starts to hunt down the gang of men, picking them off one buy one. The film follows Richard’s path and intertwines montages of flashbacks depicting Anthony’s abuse and the events that happened while Anthony was serving away.
Dead Man’s Shoes is one of Meadow’s darkest films to date, and tackles issues and consequences that his earlier films only played around with. If Shane’s first films show the rough circumstances of growing up and getting in with the wrong crowds, then Dead Man’s Shoes shows the ugly truth and reality behind those situations and real-life issues. This time, there are no funny sections or light-hearted coming-of-age moments such as ‘ah well, it’s tough ’round here but a bit of rough ‘n’ tumble does you good’, no, Dead Man’s Shoes is a hard watch, but it is also one of Meadow’s best films and remains gripping throughout.
[su_heading size=”14″ margin=”10″]Subculture and blurred boundaries – This is England (2006)[/su_heading]
A couple of years after Dead Man’s Shoes was released, Meadow’s came out with This is England, a social comment on the Skinhead revival movement of the early 1980’s. The film celebrates the Skinhead subculture and displays how a love of ska music, Dr. Martens boots and Levis Jeans saves 12-year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) from a life of loneliness and bullying. Shaun is taken under the wing of Woody (Joe Gilgun), an older Skinhead who takes sympathy on him after finding out he was being bullied by a school colleague called Harvey. Woody’s friends help to dress Shaun like themselves and let him hang around with them, introducing him to parties, girls and a fun, friendly environment.
As is a trademark of Meadows’, the film takes a dark turn when Combo (Stephen Graham), rejoins the group after serving a prison sentence. Upon his return, something is different, Combo begins to tell the group about his new views on nationalism, revealing his racist tendencies.
When Combo’s views on society turn out to be serious and are acted out, such as going to nationalist meetings and abusing non-white shopkeepers, the Skinhead group begins to split into two: one following Combo and one not. Shaun, at only 12 years old, is influenced by Combo, as he is still searching for a father figure, regardless of his views.
As Combo’s actions become more and more intense, so do the consequences, and members of his group become alienated and broken. Shaun is eventually left with a tough decision to make, and we soon see how the culture of Skinheads became torn, divided and stigmatised by white supremacists and nationalists.
This is England is perhaps the most complete Shane Meadow’s film to date, as it marries youthful coming-of-age comedy with the harsh reality of racism and hate crime.
[su_heading size=”14″ margin=”10″]Now and beyond – Shane’s latest and future projects[/su_heading]
Since shooting This is England in 2006, Meadows has released two sequel television series: This is England ’86 and This is England ’88. Shane also shot the Stone Roses documentary Made of Stone in 2013, along with a couple of feature films in between – Somer’s Town (2008) and Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee (2009) – and is also currently in the process of making a third instalment to the Skinhead series, This is England ’90, which is due out in 2015.
Check out the full list in our full A to Z of Film Directors.