Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002)
Written and Directed by Shane Meadows
Starring Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans, Shirley Henderson, Finn Atkins, Ricky Tomlinson, Kathy Burke

Movies which defy genres are great so long as they can pull what disparate elements incorporate themselves into a complete whole. It takes a strong idea, a keen eye, firm control and most importantly a subtle hand to successfully blend styles and buck conventions. Shane Meadows (who recently garnered a lot of attention for This is England) attempts to blend moments of absurdity, a bizarre love triangle, working class family dynamics and cartoonish humour all trussed up in an homage to the spaghetti-westerns of Sergio Leone and finds himself with too much on his plate. However, what you’re served is still an engrossing meal but it’s certainly not what you expected from reading the menu.

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Dragging himself out of a stupor in a disheveled apartment Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) opens his eyes to see his sister Carol (Kathy Burke) on the telly. She’s dragged her errant husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson) who lives up the road from her and dedicates his days to hustling gigs for his one man country band to get a good dose of public therapy, which he accepts as an invitation to serenade the audience with hastily written tunes. Carol’s best friend and neighbor Shirley (Shirley Henderson) is brought out to offer opinions with her daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins), but suddenly the tables turn when her boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans) follows bearing a bouquet, a nervous proposition and a ring. Shirley rejects him, the show cuts to commercial and Jimmy breathes a sigh of relief. That’s his ex and his daughter up there, after all.

As the television guests return to Nottingham Jimmy finds inspiration in what he’s just seen– a chance to reclaim his lost love. When a heist with his bungling mates goes awry because the clowns their robbing fight back he ends up with a bag of cash and the cops on their way. Ditching his crew Jimmy starts hitching his way back south towards the Midlands.

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It’s a quiet place where people live quiet lives and have quiet personal torments like being publicly humiliated on national TV. Dek tries to come to terms with Shirley about the state of their relationship by buying a sporty new leather jacket but he’s a hopeless twit who entertains his adopted daughter with a fart machine and awkward talks. Charlie continues making calls from his bathroom scraping together gigs. Carol’s got a house full of kids and her eldest’s live-in boyfriend who happens to work for Dek at the auto shop. Everything’s sewn up in clumsy small-town fashion, but are the ties that bind prepared for the the reemergence of Jimmy on the scene?

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The movie focuses mostly on Shirley’s old feelings for her former lover, her new feelings for Dek and considerations for the feelings of her precocious but brooding daughter. Dek’s insecurity is tempered only by his idiotic sense of showmanship when he finally finds himself face to face with this criminal Jimmy. There’s also some mates from Glasgow driving around town in stolen cars wondering what happened to their getaway ride and a bag full of money which strains the family ties in Carol and Charlie’s lives. No one’s entirely thrilled about Jimmy’s return but no one seems able to turn him away completely. This all builds to an inevitable showdown, Dek and Jimmy, squaring off with puffed chests trying to impress Shirley who still can’t quite figure out what it is that she wants. There’s some twists and turns along the way but they seem almost inconsequential– we know it’s going to be high noon in the end.

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Examine the comedic elements, as the back of the DVD wants you to. The shooting style is definitely reminiscent of goofy English films, or even in the slightly cartoonish style of Peter Jackson’s earliest horror movies. Attempts are made to send the audience into titters, a gang of clowns fighting a gang of hopeless thugs is a good example, but they don’t really work as intended. There’s a sense of bemusement throughout the entire film which works but the sight gags and punch lines become unnecessary and ultimately fail to create uproarious situations.

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Examine the drama and Meadows stands on firmer ground. The set-up is solid enough, lost love and regrets, people’s insecurities and ineptitude. At various points you feel genuine sympathy toward each of the three primary characters, but at other points you become frustrated by their behavior. Jimmy’s earnest desire to reunite with his family devolves into smug self-assurance and a blindness towards the fact that he had abandoned his girlfriend and daughter who might be a little pissed off. Dek is a complete and utter tool, sniveling shit, dork but his fears that Shirley will run back to her hot-blooded man’s man and his stuttering attempts to communicate honest feelings to both his girlfriend and her daughter are painfully real. Shirley for her part suffers between the past and present, trying to reassure Dek of her love for him and keep Marlene’s best interests in mind, but her weakness sends her spiraling back towards what is obviously a bad idea.

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The story is simple, tried and true. What makes this movie isn’t necessarily any clever writing but the clever portrayals by a mixed bag of actors and actresses. Ricky Tomlinson’s cowboy schtick and independent lifestyle seem ripe for ripping but somehow the pathetic fantasies never make him a sad old man. Kathy Burke’s momma bear persona is well played and she balances her acts of tenderness with acts of crudeness, comfortable in herself and her character. She also gets to blow off some steam with a couple great tirades reminding you she’s as dangerous as a momma bear if you don’t watch your step. Finn is pretty amazing for a role which often requires she act like the adult for the childish adults in her life. She stands tall and firm, the only person in the house who can express herself clearly and think things through. Carlyle (who I first saw in Riff-Raff) seems a little out of place in this, affecting a Scottish tough in between puppy dog eyes and near-tears confusion. He’s not as fleshed out as a principle character should be and the actor doesn’t seem to have much need to dig any deeper to fill the role. Henderson spends most of the movie either cooing at Dek, cooing at Marlene, or confused about Jimmy which isn’t a very demanding role but she does it convincingly. Ifans, however, steps to the occasion somehow managing to make what is a pretty despicable twat someone worth rooting for.

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The film style rides between accenting the slight eccentricities of Nottingham and its residents with the staging of a western. If the music and titles hadn’t evoked images of the old west I probably would never have thought about it but there are some pretty solid nods. Jimmy, the man in black, returns to town and everyone runs around with their heads chopped off. There’s a lot of shots of people segregated by space, foreground and middle ground, one side of the street and the other. There’s some squaring off, there’s a saloon sequence, someone’s using a power drill pretending it’s a revolver. Of course, there’s the conclusion, the last stand-off, the shootout to decide who’s right and who’s wrong– kinda sorta. Frankly I have no idea why Meadows wanted to throw these elements into the mix but they don’t seem to add much and they appear so randomly sometimes it hurts the momentum oft he film. Possibly the biggest what the fuck the movie has to offer is building up a subplot to an explosion and then pretending it just disappears. That’s just plain sloppy.

The music alternates between Ricky Tomlinson’s cheesy country ballads, the faux-Morricone, and some really distressing adult contemporary songs by Sarah McLachlan and Nora Jones which run over little montage sequences. Horrible idea and it just serves to accentuate the mish-mash nature of the movie. Otherwise the sound seemed fine without much need for any noticeable sound effects or other post-production compensation. The widescreen transfer looked fine with no noticeable pixilated darks and no overly saturated brights. There’s even English subtitles if you find the northern accents too thick to comprehend. Available via Netflix and other sources.

No proper trailer available so here’s a fun scene instead: