Once Upon A Time In The Midlands

Oct 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

As the title implies, writer/director Shane Meadows’ new film has some spaghetti Western overtones, though they’re rather faint and somewhat forced. Set in the present, in the British Midlands city of Nottingham, it’s a comedy with an amusing setup, an appealing cast and a rather dragging second half.

Apparently in England they have the same sort of wretched, bare-your-soul talk shows that we do and the film opens with the humiliation of poor Dek (Rhys Ifan) as he proposes to love-of-his-life Shirley (Shirley Henderson) on national television, only to be quietly but firmly turned down. This makes for a difficult ride home in the car to Dek’s house where the two live with Shirley’s daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins). Dek is crushed but Shirley has her reasons: She’s not quite over her disastrous marriage to Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), a petty criminal currently plying his trade in Scotland.

Though Dek is hurt, he and Shirley stay together and soon after the TV fiasco Jimmy, on the lam from a robbery in Glasgow, shows up in Nottingham, intent on winning Shirley back. At first Shirley isn’t interested but soon the old flame is ignited and she must choose between Dek, a big gentle lug, and her ex, a small, violent and very manipulative thug.

It’s a simple story and Meadows and his co-writer have fleshed it out a bit with some eccentric ancillary characters like Jimmy’s foster sister Carol (Kathy Burke doing the kind of likable loudmouth role she’s perfected in past films), her husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), who fancies himself a country-and-western singer, and a trio of comic goons who have followed Jimmy to town after he made off with their swag.

But once all the parts are in place the story begins to bog down as the mood shifts from light comedy to soggy drama. We know that the cowardly Dek is going to eventually prevail over the bullying Jimmy — it’s that kind of film, and it has to live up to its title by having a final showdown where the hero trumps the bad guy — and too much time is tread as the inevitable is postponed. Still it’s a cast to relish, especially Henderson. A great unsung actress, she played the alcoholic performer who sang the wonderful finale in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and here she makes the fight seem worth the prize.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, Oct. 10-12. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].