Two years on from the '86 sequel, set around the days prior to Christmas 1988 and, once again, a lot has changed.
So, take a breath...
Woody and Lol have split, following Lol giving birth to a mixed race baby girl which obviously pointed to Woody's best friend Milky being the father. Milky's keeping a respectful distance whilst Woody has severed all ties with the gang and seemingly settled down with a new girlfriend, the ever so nice Jennifer. Lol's struggling to bring her daughter up as a single mum whilst wrestling with the demons she has from killing her abusive father in the previous film. Worse, she's haunted by his spectre, just like a traditional Christmas ghost story! Combo's in prison for taking the manslaughter rap and continues to prove to be far more misunderstood than we could ever imagine. Shaun is still with Smell and at college now, finding a love for drama as well as a love for his fellow student Fay, which threatens to ruin everything. Oh and Meggy's dead.
'They say Christmas is a time for forgiving and forgetting, a time of love and laughter and joy ever after. But when all hope seems lost, what peace is there to be found? This is Christmas. This Is England'
It's a tight and well constructed, suitably wintry three parter from Shane Meadows, focusing more squarely on the drama that chills to the bone this time around, rather than the boisterous comedy. I also feel that in the final part especially Meadows gives us some of the strongest visuals he has ever produced on screen.
Once again the story is largely dominated by Vicky McClure's Lol, but this time she's matched by equal attention for Joe Gilgun's Woody. Both characters are struggling, lost without each other even though in his case, superficially, it seems fine and dandy. They certainly take the acting honours, with McClure having some truly mesmerising scenes first with Irish actress Helen Behan who matches her brilliantly as her daughter's nurse, becoming Lol's confident and aid in what is a deeply moving confessional scene, and later with Stephen Graham's Combo during a prison visit. The fact that these scenes come immediately after one another makes the second part of this serial all the more spellbinding. Meanwhile Gilgun gets to show his flair for drama rather than that of comedy in a suitably heartbreaking and realistic confrontation between him and his friend Milky, who he rightly feels betrayed him, but their love for one another runs deep.
It's fair to say Shaun (Turgoose) takes a further step away from the spotlight in this second sequel and it's sad that his storyline ends on a rather downbeat and unresolved tone this time around. Occasionally it doesn't feel like his story fits as well into the overall structure and is somewhat dwarfed by McClure et al, which is a shame given how, as semi autobiographical his character is, he was so central to the original film and to the series as a whole. As Meadows himself reveals, he took a somewhat Mike Leigh approach, including his cast, to branch the story out;
"This Is England started off about me, but by 88 its not really. The bit about me is Shaun going to college to study drama and being in a play. I was in that play, I said those lines, just look at Shaun's house and you'll see me. Everyone else has come from personal discussions with the actors about themselves or people they know. Otherwise you end up filling it up with your own stuff and no one's that interesting"
However his story shares pleasing and affecting similarities with that of Woody in that both have 'the other woman', in Shaun's case it's Fay played by Charlotte Tyree, whereas for Woody it's Jennifer played by Stacey Sampson. Both actresses engage audience empathy easily and their characters seem genuinely nice, they're just in the wrong place at the wrong time with fate having decreed them to be the wrong fit for each man despite being largely 'right'. There's no malice to either of them, far from it, but they're destined to suffer for coming between them.
Roll on what Meadows is already claiming to be the best yet - This Is England '90.