Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Shane Meadows' England

Fresh from his Best British Film BAFTA for This is England, Shane Meadows is on a career high. Sandra Dupuy examines the life and work of this gritty, socio-political director.

His interviewers evoke his formidable appearance: bald headed, sporting an inquisitive and mocking gaze and equipped with a sturdy scrum half physique. His detractors belittle his systematic use of Nottingham suburbs and the Midlands as a backdrop set for his films, and the lad culture they depict.

But the true connoisseurs appreciate the importance of Shane Meadows’ work. What singles him out from his peers and makes him one of Britain’s most intriguing film stylists is his unwavering observation of seemingly ordinary people, coupled with his ability to empower his films with a raw and uplifting energy, flowing from disaster to delight and drollery to dread.

Meadows questions the foundations of the English identity at a crucial contemporary period, the 80s, through his own experience as a rowdy youngster growing up in the suburbs of Uttoxeter. Though only loosely autobiographic, This is England (2006) is an accurate reconstruction of the political instability of a country oscillating between Conservative and Labour leadership before landing in Margaret Thatcher’s powerful hands. The opening credits’ feature a collage of 80s television news which skilfully illustrate the social and political preoccupations of the time. All the ills afflicting British society throughout the late seventies and early eighties are there - the strikes, the high unemployment, the inner city racial riots, the Falklands War and the class struggle born of an inadequacy between a mostly working class population and its impotent monarchs.

The director’s other films are not as politically charged, but they tackle themes that are intrinsically English and resolutely contemporary. The settings of Meadows’ stories borrow from Ken Loach’s realism. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) opens in a Kes-like manner, with its two main protagonists, Romeo Brass (Andrew Shim) and Gavin “Knocks” Wolley (Ben Marshall) discussing family feuds under a delicately chiselled tree, with a typical misty green Northern countryside in the background. As soon as the title appears and The Specials’ “A Message to You Rudy” plays, Romeo and Gavin (and the audience) are transported back into the urban greyness they walk everyday. The visual contrast, like in Loach’s 1969 feature, is also a social one. The kids live in a council estate, far from the picturesque British views advertised in glossy tourist brochures, and they experience far worse than having to choose between strawberry jam or marmalade at breakfast. Romeo (like Shaun in This is England) is longing for a substitute for his absentee father, while Gavin will experience a two-year isolation because of his physical handicap.

Menace looms and violence explodes in Meadows’ unflinching portrayals of loners, orphans and messed-up youths. In 24 7: Twenty Four Seven (1997), most of the bored Nottingham gang coaxed by Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins) into his local boxing club will ultimately be decimated by the violence inflicted upon them within an unsympathetic and over-competitive society saturated with drugs and crime. As the Stranglers foretold in their 1977 anthem “No More Heroes”, the old values of conservative Britain, ferociously eroded by two decades of economic crisis and social turmoil, have become obsolete. Accordingly, Meadows’ unobtrusive yet unflinching camera lingers on outcasts, misfits and the mistreated. Some authority figures can be spotted in the bleak landscape, like the sympathetic and inspiring coach from 24 7, Cynthia (Jo Hartley), the concerned mother of This is England or Dek (Rhys Ifans), the reassuring garage manager from Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002). However, they are struggling with the label their entourage has granted them. If they conform to what society expects from them, they will sacrifice honesty and responsibility. But their ethics and relentless involvement in heralding lost causes might ultimately be detrimental.

And that’s how Meadows’ magic operates. From life observation and personal memories, he elaborates poignant characters with the help of his best friend and co-writer Paul Fraser (whose childhood infirmity was the inspiration for Romeo Brass) and fellow musician and actor Paddy Considine (whose original idea was the starting point for 2004’s Dead Man’s Shoes). Meadows’ characters may seem predictable but the motivations behind their stark actions and violent reactions are complex. Brilliantly assisted by cinematographers Ashley Rowe and Danny Cohen (for his first and last two features respectively), Meadows stages the rise, fall and redemption of these tormented souls among the soft black and white expressionist shots of 24 7 or the rain laden blues, greys and greens of Lancashire in Dead Man’s Shoes.

Music is another component of the magic. Omnipresent and potent, it permeates the films, propelling the action and creating an uplifting counterpoint to the drama.

As well as Scottish filmmaker Lynn Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999), the Nottingham director’s stark visual poetry brilliantly fuses microcosmos into macrocosmos, capturing the essence of an era through the dreams and misadventures of a geographically localised youth. Like Ramsay’s, his films are urban fairytale-like stories in which some of the characters are either dead or battling the phantoms of past memories. The viewers learn about Darcy’s story through his diary read by some of his former protégés. Near the beginning of Dead Man’s Shoes, the perturbed paratrooper played by Considine, returning to his hometown after a long absence to exact revenge on his disabled brother’s tormentors, comments on the ghostly atmosphere of his deserted teenage hangouts. His methodical revenge is also consigned in a clinically hand-written diary whose main entries are super-imposed on the images. Celia Haining, Lucas Roche and Chris Wyatt’s deft editing presents colourful reminiscences of childhood interspersed with monochrome flashbacks to the younger brother’s ordeal, emphasizing the unbearable yet necessary weight of collective memory.

Remembrance may be the tool for a community to let go of its past and built a better future, but Meadows’ films, if they acknowledge the power of dream and determination, also work as alarming documents on the state of a region. A pillar of this documentary aspect is the exceptional cast, which the director partly re-hires from one film to another. His approach to casting is similar to Ken Loach: “local” talent is preferable in order to preserve the authenticity of the environment he depicts. Considine (Morrel in Romeo Brass and Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes), MacClure (Ladine Brass, and Lol in This Is England) and Shim (Romeo Brass and Milky in This Is England) are the best examples. Meadows has a relaxed approach to working with his actors. Showing them the script, he loosely directs them, encouraging their personal input and improvisation in the name of authenticity. 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot would argue that the greatest actors are those who can distance themselves from the material they’re performing. The emotional involvement of Meadows’ cast in the harrowing material nonetheless works wonders, eliciting confident performances which encapsulate the eccentricities of his films.

If his determination to explore the smallest and seediest areas in Nottingham admittedly derives from an emotional attachment to the city and a desire to interrogate the reality behind the picturesque, it is also initiated by practical reasons. There is no need for an independent filmmaker to go to London when all the sound studios, editing equipment, technicians and talents are available locally. Besides, the local funding system helps regional directors throughout every thorny stage in the financing. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands’, a Film Four production, had an increased budget compared to Romeo Brass. Meadows chose to cast bigger names like Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans. He had to share the final cut and the finished product didn’t correspond to his initial vision. Meadows is now more than ever convinced that the power of his work relies on local resources and complete creative independence. Strengthened by the bitter experience, the Nottingham poet is back to what he does best: provoke, entertain and move. His uncompromising work is cinema at its meanest and funniest.

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