Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (15)
One can’t help but feel sorry for Shane Meadows, the gifted Young Turk behind twentyfourseven.
When that rites of passage flick came out in 1998 he was feted as one of the new saviours of the British film industry along with the Trainspotting boys.
His follow-up, A Room for Romeo Brass, split critics and fans alike straight down the middle: you either loved it or hated it. Now he’s back again with this bitty Nottingham-based domestic drama where the main themes have been lifted from the Clint Eastwood movies that built the foundations for Meadows’ youth.
The story chronicles the lives of Dek and Shirley (Rhys Ifans and Shirley Henderson), an average couple living average lives on an estate in the Midlands.
Dek is a boring chap with a heart of gold – the kind of guy who tries hard and does all the right things but will never set the world alight even if he had an ocean of petrol and a match the size of Nelson’s column.
As for Shirley, she’s stuck in a rut with a geeky boyfriend who adores her, her kids and their directionless life. So it comes as a shock when, live on TV, he asks her to marry him. She’s not prepared for him to pop the question, and he’s never contemplated what he’d do if she said ‘no. Which she does.
Suddenly Dek is a figure of fun, not just in his home town but all over the UK. What’s more, his pathetic attempt at a marriage proposal is witnessed and enjoyed by Jimmy, Shirley’s feckless ex and father of her daughter Marlene (the excellent Finn Atkins).
Within hours Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) is on the road from Glasgow with the proceeds of an armed robbery in his bag. His intention: win back Shirley and his daughter and show his crap love rival the door.
The main fault in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is that, not only does it feature performances from Ifans and Carlyle – two of the UK’s most over-rated actors, and the equivalent of box office poison – it also falls between the genres of gritty social drama and comedy.
Lurching from the social realist world of Ken Loach through the no-win domestic scenarios of Mike Leigh, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands attempts to recreate the winning combination of laughter and pathos that made twentyfourseven a hit.
It fails principally because the themes – the black-hatted villain versus the decent, white-hatted man or virtue – are awkwardly presented. The title itself is a send-up of better films yet Meadows paints his picture as an urban landscape rather than a cartoon. It doesn’t gel.
Carlyle plays Jimmy like a watered down version of Begbie from Trainspotting, while Ifans at least earns a degree of sympathy as the hapless hero. Throw in a fine piece of hacked-off character acting from Kathy Burke (always brilliant), the revelation that is Finn Atkins and unrecognisable cameos from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and one experiences a jumbled film where, at some point, the various plot strands start to unravel.