ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS (Shane Meadows, 2002) (Drexel Grandview, 12/21/03) Grade: C+
The title and the music suggest a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but the setting and characters would be more at home in a Mike Leigh film. Those seemingly disparate elements are fused into a domestic drama/comedy with great tonal inconsistencies, although the end result is more poignant than expected.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS opens with most of the main characters appearing on the British equivalent of THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW. Carol (Kathy Burke) is dissatisfied with her marriage to husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), an aspiring Country & Western singer. He's good enough with the kids, but his current avocation of choice doesn't have the most promise. The next guests on the show are their children and Carol's best friend Shirley (Shirley Henderson). Shirley assumes she is there to provide insight on Carol and Charlie's relationship, but instead her longtime live-in boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans) emerges from backstage with an armful of flowers and a marriage proposal. She declines.
Watching all of this on television is Shirley's former husband Jimmy (Robert Carlyle). If he didn't have a reason to pay her a visit before, now he does, although his primary interest has less to do with rekindling an old romance and more to do with dodging the Glaswegian pals he ditched at a robbery scene. Still, it's not as though the ineffectual Dek presents much of a challenge if he wants to steal back Shirley and their daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins).
Dek learns that Jimmy has come to the British Midlands and is looking for Shirley. As if being humiliated on national television wasn't enough, now his love's ex is encroaching on his home life. Shirley swears her allegiance to Dek, but he becomes more exasperated and distant. Eventually Jimmy takes his place, leaving Dek with nothing but a suitcase, his beloved car, and plans to skip town.
Meadows transplants this classic western scenario to modern day Britain, with John Lunn's jangly, Ennio Morricone-inspired score adding to that sense of good and bad facing off on an empty, dusty road. Unfortunately, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS can't quite recover from the fluctuating and contradictory tones that compose the film's first half. The opening seems to tell the audience to laugh at and look down on the characters. After all, only fools would go on such a television program and not expect they would look like buffoons. Yet we're expected to take these people seriously, a difficult task when the film appears to be smirking at Dek's complete lack of fashion sense and the lower middle class trapping and activities around them. Throw in a dash of British crime picture, with the three thugs pursuing Jimmy. The combination results in dissonance because Meadows' direction gives us conflicting cues.
Around the halfway mark, though, Meadows finds his feet, grounding the film in an emotional reality that explores the romantic triangle and how its outcomes impact Marlene. When ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS takes Marlene's perspective, it becomes much more resonant. We see her resistance to the father she has probably never known. We also view the bond she has with Dek, even though he be may terminally unhip. For an early birthday present he gives her something precious to him--a watch that his grandfather gave to his father, who bestowed it to him. This man's watch is too big and clunky for a girl and doesn't look like the valuable heirloom he suspects it is, but Marlene takes to it as a symbol of the love Dek has for her. A late scene shows Dek and Marlene enjoying a simple birthday celebration, and by this point we realize that in spite of his failings, here is a good man who should stand up and fight for his family. Ifans is especially good in these later scenes. If only his character hadn't been painted so broadly in the beginning.
As Shirley, Henderson tenderly plays the woman caught in the middle. Through her quiet performance we can understand why she has been attached to Dek for years yet resists him when put on the spot. Likewise, we can see the appeal Jimmy holds for her until he's been around long enough for the polish to wear off.
How I wish Meadows had been able to smooth out the rough first half. Like Dek, did he not feel confident in what he was doing? Comparing the first and second halves is akin to watching two different films. The straightforward domestic scenes of the second half are pitched over the top in the first. A lack of consistency creeps up in the music too. The score's nervous energy suits the story well. Then a Norah Jones song is shoehorned in for placement over a montage, and a Sarah McLachlan song plays under the crucial final scenes. These moments work with the pop music, but the transition jars everything around it. With a unified vision, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS could have been terrific. Instead, it's sometimes frustrating and sometimes wonderful.