After two episodes, This Is England had already gone some way to justifying the £20 million budget that went some way to convincing Shane Meadows that his vision for the serialised sequel could work. The series definitely feels like it is a compelling exercise in fleshing out characters that we already at least partly felt comfortable with, while staying faithful to Meadows' perpetual filmic manifesto for story-telling on screen.
So far, so good then: but episode three promised even more weight. Meadows' approach to the serialisation of the series has taken into account a steady increase in the drama of events revealed in each episode: the premiere may have been accused of being too gentle, but in the light of what has followed- including this week's episode- it looks more and more like a measured decision to start of relatively gently and build to a near claustrophobic level of intensity. The third, and first with Shane Meadows in the director's chair, promised to be even more profoundly compelling, and it delivered. Oh, how it delivered.
The events of the third ep played out something like this: after an excellent montage of Falklands footage, we open to discover that Shaun is living rough, having discovered his mother's relationship with his boss and storming out after he offered an ultimatum that was steadfastly refused by his mum to ditch her lover or lose her son. Meanwhile, having slept with Milky and been ostracised by her family over her rejection of her father, Lol's world is collapsing around her, and she seems to be conspiring to fall apart with it- she wants to reject both Milky and Woody and has no intention of accepting her father back into her life as willingly as her mother and sister seemingly have. As peripheral events unfold, including England's Mexico '86 victory over Poland and a slightly smaller scale football match that nonetheless has some chaotic repercussions, Lol's dad Mick reveals his true colours in a sickening attack on his daughter's best friend Kelly's best friend Trev.
And of course there is the small matter of Combo's return, the crescendo that the first two episodes, whether consciously or not, were working towards for a great deal of fans of the original film.
The greatest thing about the show is the dynamic between characters- in particular the hilarious relationships between Gadge and Trudy, which inspires both disgust and hilarity in equal measure and the one between Sean and Smell, especially in their exchange over Sean's estranged relationship with his mother. In fact, the acting that underpins those dynamics seems to get better and better with every episode- the introduction of Mick in particular has been an excellent decision considering the strength of Johnny Harris' performance.
Meanwhile, Lol has turned into a near irredeemable character, even in light of her father's malignance being confirmed, and the performance of Vicky McClure was sadly not as measured and nuanced as in the last episode. Though you get the impression watching her spiral out of control that McClure is exactly on target with what Meadows wants to achieve with her character arch: in fact, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the resolution of the mini-series will revolve around Lol's redemption or destruction. What price on that resolution also involving some kind of come-uppance for Mick? One thing is certain, no matter how difficult his subject matter or the journey within his films, Meadows has a definite moral undercurrent to his narratives- good might not be all good, and bad not all bad, but their is inevitably a balance to the conflict and some kind of karmic retribution for the main offenders.
And on that subject, now to the most contentious issue- the rape scene that has encouraged a vocal and disturbed reaction across the net and in print since last night's episode aired. It was certainly brave, and profoundly affecting, which you would be forgiven for expecting from anything Shane Meadows is associated with, especially with this episode being the first directed by Meadows himself. The most difficult thing to accept with the episode is not the subject matter- the rape scene in fact is an excellent addition to the series, because it takes focus away from Combo's menace and introduces a genuine hate figure in the shape of Mick- but the way in which the episode's tone swings wildly up to the point. The usual witty tone is dialled up quite markedly, with the football fight scene between Woody and gang and Flip and his Casuals marking a near-pantomimey high point for the humour (which is probably due in part to Flip's outrageous demeanour), and then to segue-way into the most affecting scene of the series, which is as dark a scene I can remember Meadows offering is obviously meant to be affecting by its difference, but there are extremes to that tonal monochrome that make the transition almost too difficult to take. I understand that the change in tone is meant to enhance the feeling attached to the rape scene, but when it is so close to compromising the flow of the episode and making some of the more humorous sequences look like self-parody, that cannot be a wholly good thing.
The performances involved in that scene were both terrific: Mick, played by Johnny Harris, deserves some kind of accolade for the menace and animal barbarity that he brought to the character in that scene and Danielle Watson, largely a peripheral character stepped up to arguably the most challenging material in admirable fashion. Unfortunately for those compelled to complain about such things, the scene was also disturbingly believable, we could tangibly feel Trev's discomfort up to the point that Mick snaps and attacks her, and I would challenge anyone who wasn't deeply affected by watching her react to his actual attack. Excellent - if hugely disturbing - work.
And then, juxtaposed with that scene- and at one point shown under a disturbing soundtrack of the attack- Meadows gave us Combo's return beautifully handled as part of a quartet of images that shared screen time- the members of the group watching the world cup, the rape, Lol alone in the toilet of the pub, evidently a broken soul and then Combo stumbling into Sean's living room. As if confirming that nothing changes no matter how far we might think we have come, Combo's return, so excellently framed by the other images, added a strange poignancy to an earlier exchange between Milky and Woody, marvelling in their post-fight adrenaline fog that it had effectively been like the good old days. The intricacy with which Meadows reveals his story-telling ability is just wonderful in such moments.
Overall, a very strong episode, marred slightly by the wandering tone that went a little too far in its comedy (to the point of self-parody) in the hope of making the finale all the more affecting. Great performances throughout, and a story that just gets better and better.
WRITERS: Shane Meadows & Jack Thorne DIRECTOR: Tom Harper CAST: Thomas Turgoose, Rosamund Hanson, Joe Gilgun, Vicky McClure, Andrew Ellis, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Perry Benson, George Newton, Jo Hartley, Johnny Harris, Kriss Dosanjh, Danielle Watson, Joe Dempsie, Chanel Cresswell, Michael Socha, Hannah Walters, Katherine Dow Blyton & Perry Fitzpatrick TRANSMISSION: 21st September 2010 CHANNEL 4/HD, 10PM