Judge Bill Gibron wonders if a six-shooter would have improved this romantic drama?
From the wrong side of the tracks comes the right kind of love.
When Carol (Kathy Burke) and her wayward husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson) appear on a national talk show, best friend Shirley (Shirley Henderson) thinks she's just along for moral support. Little does Shirley know that it's a setup, a chance for her live-in boyfriend, Dek (Rhys Ifans), to propose. In a real bombshell, Shirley rejects the romantic request, and this sets off a sad series of events. Dek feels betrayed and belittled. Carol is convinced that the nerdy, nebbishy suitor is just not right for her pal. And Jimmy, Shirley's violent, criminal ex-husband, decides that he wants his wayward wife back. So after pulling off a heist with a few of his mates, Jimmy leaves Glasgow and heads to the Midlands to reclaim his former bride.
In the meantime, Dek is doing everything to win Shirley over. Even his betrothed's daughter, the wiser-than-her-years Marlene, wants her mother and Dek to get on with it and get hitched. But when Jimmy shows up, everything goes topsy-turvy: Dek becomes frantic, Carol curses her no-good "brother" for returning to town with trouble on his mind, and Shirley feels the old tug of dangerous affection pulling on her again. When Dek accidentally catches Shirley and Jimmy together, his worst fears are confirmed. But thanks to a last minute lecture by Marlene, he decides to fight for his love and his life. Tensions mount and accusations fly as this volatile relationship roundup comes to a very hot head. It's all a part of the same old saga between man and woman. It's the story that begins: Once Upon a Time in the Midlands.
Supposedly a satire on the spaghetti western genre, or just merely borrowing the better parts of said films for its cinematic foundation, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is a decent British romantic comedy that never really enters the realm of actual wit. Certainly there are scenes that bring about a chuckle, and the characterization is of the broad, bonkers variety. But we never get the clash of personalities and situations necessary to lay down the laughter. What happens instead is that the dramatic undercurrent rises to the top, tainting everything with sadness and anger. This doesn't mean the movie misses its mark. Far from it. But it does mean that what is advertised and intended as an uproarious rib-tickler is really a far better light tragedy.
While the performances can border on the cartoonish and the motives are jumbled for most of the action, there is still a kernel of truth to all this turmoil. Director Shane Meadows has struck upon a nice variation of the former lover formula that works well within the confines of the personal stories at hand. It's only when the scope broadens a bit, when Meadows wants to make statements about social quirks (like people getting engaged on TV talk shows) or personal propensities (Ricky Tomlinson's country and western obsession) that his tone is blown clear across the countryside. Instead of keeping everything in close, he forgets the first mandate in most of Sergio Leone's epics: the horizon may be vast and the landscape immense, but nothing can replace the individual for infinite possibilities.
Meadows never quite figures out how to make the spaghetti western motif work. There are only a couple of instances (a stare-down with a drill, a final shot of the Midlands countryside) that recall the best of the genre's Cinemascope splendor. When it comes to the basics—the slow-motion plotting and extreme close-up creativity—Meadows comes up empty. He occasionally lets the camera linger on his actors in moments of misery, but the shot is never long or near enough to pack real power. He obviously hopes that the musical memories the score invokes (in reality, it's merely ersatz-Morricone) and the moralistic machinations of the plot will win you over to his horse opera endeavors. Yet, for a movie that outright references Leone, the Mediterranean maestro's lexicon of movie moves is all but ignored.
Then there is the issue of the film's featured region. Maybe it's the cultural barrier or the outrageous accents, but the interpersonal dynamics of these sods are hard to decipher. The Midlands clans we meet in this film resemble the kind of lower middle class clumps of earth that comedians in America refer to as Wal-Martians. These bingo playing, consumer-oriented crudities must be more complicated than Meadows makes them out to be. There has to be more to their story than a media mindset. A true cinematic social commentary, fleshing out the director's feelings about the blue-collar bloke, could have made Once Upon a Time in the Midlands soar. But instead, its daft desire to imitate its prairie pasta predecessors hems it in.
Yet what keeps this movie from sinking in a quagmire of uninspired eccentricity is the acting. The standout among Meadows's talented cast is Kathy Burke (Nil by Mouth), who practically steals the movie away from everyone else. Hers is the only fully rounded entity among the vacant and overbroad caricatures. She has a wonderful extended argument, which starts with brother Jimmy and ends with Dek, Dek's car and a baseball bat that has to be seen to be appreciated. The other excellent performance is delivered by Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Human Nature). He must work hard to avoid the borderline cliché he is saddled with. But thanks to a few introspective moments where he allows his inner feelings to flow forth, Ifans's Dek is a deservedly dire nerd in love. Finn Atkins, as Marlene, is one great scene away from being right up there with Burke and Ifans. Among the vacuous young people she is bundled in with, her brave, assured stance helps her stand out magnificently.
Sadly, the rest of the cast is not given much to work with. Robert Carlyle is once again playing a variation on his Trainspotting wildman persona, toning it down just a wee bit to win his bonny wife back. But if there is a weakest link in this acting troupe, it's Shirley Henderson. She never registers as anything but a lass led by her libido. She obviously loves Dek, but seems to take more advantage of than affection from him. When they have a chance to talk it out, she turns into a clam, only "opening up" for her ex. As the object of affection and the goal for each guy, her Shirley should be something more than a generic frail female. She should have some life. She should have a spark. But as goes the lead actress, thus the movie is marred.
Columbia Tri-Star gives this DVD presentation a beautiful image and atmospheric soundscape that helps Meadows at least try to make his point. The anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is crisp, colorful and occasionally exciting. On the technical side, there is a moment when French words come up onscreen even when the subtitles are turned off (it only happens twice—translating signs, oddly enough), and the final credits are a blur of bad font on a stark black background. Sonically, the biggest problem with this digital offering is the dialogue. It occasionally feels flat and muffled, and the lack of an English subtitle track (almost a must here considering how thick the accents are) means you miss the odd comment here and there. The overly produced score, created to recall the best of the Italian western, is okay, but never builds the kind of grandeur that the masters could manage. As for extras, a series of trailers is all we get.
The ad for Once Upon a Time in the Midlands makes it seem like an uproarious, wacky farce. It is far from it. Indeed, a rewrite with drama in mind, instead of hijinks, would have made this almost bust into a certified classic. The story of a jilted Joe fighting for the femme fatale he loves is as timeless as the Coliseum. And director Meadows almost manages to make a masterwork. But because he wants to get laughs and to lickspittle the legacy of Leone and his cowboy cronies, he's never true to his own vision. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, so the story goes, a man and a woman faced a predicament of love. Too bad they had to work it out in such an arch, anarchic fashion.
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