Brit social realism meets the spaghetti Western — and the former wins — in Shane Meadows’ “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands,” a marvelously involving family saga with which the maverick English helmer finally earns his silver spurs. Strongly cast from top to bottom with a roster of Blighty’s realist talent, and with a script that’s well structured without losing Meadows’ characteristically loose feel, pic is flawed only by a slight dip in temperature at the start of the third act and the lack of a sufficiently grandstanding finale for the film to break out into wider arenas. Still, with this third full-length feature, the young director of “TwentyFourSeven” and “A Room for Romeo Brass” can be said to have definitively arrived, with moderate-to-warm returns likely with vigorous marketing.
If the title itself weren’t enough, John Lunn’s gentle Morricone-meets-C&W pastiche, plus the main title graphics, announce the mold into which Meadows and regular co-writer Paul Fraser have squeezed their latest working class comedy of manners set in Nottingham, central England. But though “Midlands” is shot in widescreen, and the score and camera angles occasionally evoke the spirit of Sergio Leone, pic is far from being either a Brit Western or a grunge parody. In the end, Meadows the storyteller wins over Meadows the movie buff — to the picture’s and viewer’s advantage.
Yarn sets up the basic conflict from the opening sequence as Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), a small-time Scottish criminal, sees his one-time family and in-laws on a TV confessional show (hosted by real-life presenter Vanessa Feltz). During the program, which focuses on the marital problems between Jimmy’s foster sister, Carol (Kathy Burke), and her lay-about husband, Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), Vanessa’s surprise guests include Jimmy’s ex-wife, Shirley (Shirley Henderson), and her longtime partner, Dek (Rhys Ifans).
When Dek proposes marriage to Shirley live on national TV — and she tearfully turns him down — Jimmy considers, on a whim, heading south from Glasgow to reclaim her after walking out years earlier. First, however, he has a snatch-and-grab job to pull off with his partners in crime (James Cosmo, Antony Strachan, David McKay). When that goes wrong, and he’s the only one left holding the swag, Jimmy gets out of town even faster than he’d planned.
Dek, who thought Jimmy was still in prison and out of his and Shirley’s lives, is distraught at the news of his return. Jimmy also doesn’t have the highest regard for the sappy garage mechanic (“Welsh wanker”) who now occupies a place in the heart of his Shirley and their 12-year-old daughter, Marlene (newcomer Finn Atkins). Shirley claims she loves only Dek; but when Jimmy breezes into the local pub one evening, her eyes (and the musical soundtrack) tell a different story.
Film’s first 40 minutes are a tour de force of realistic character comedy and directorial flourishes that set up a host of interconnected stories, as well as the central dramatic arc. There’s an assurance in Meadows’ direction, and an impressive sense of architecture in the script, that carry the viewer along, hooking the interest way beyond the surface comedy of a spaghetti Western spoof.
When Jimmy’s colleagues blow into town, after the money and his hide, relationships are put to the test. Initially, Dek betrays Jimmy’s whereabouts to the thuggish trio; but the emotional cards in his and Shirley’s relationship turn out to be held not by the adults but by the smart and very honest Marlene.
Tempo drops somewhat at the hour mark, as Meadows and Fraser take time out to examine the effect of Jimmy’s arrival on several characters. Burke’s Carol, till then rather thinly developed, is a major beneficiary here as the experienced actress/comedienne is given some space to develop her part. Benefitting most, however, is Marlene, and Atkins (a student at a Nottingham-based TV workshop) grasps the chance with impressive maturity. The finale is pure Meadows, and entirely character-based, repaying the audience’s earlier patience at the start of act three.
Ensemble work is seamless, from major players like the tightly wound Carlyle, quiet but resonant Henderson (so good as the wife in “24 Hour Party People”), the ever-bluff Tomlinson and lilting Ifans — down to the various group choruses in the movie (the Glasgow gangsters, Dek’s staff) and Charlie and Carol’s vast family of kids. Unlike Meadows’ much darker “Romeo Brass,” there’s a real sense of joy in the pic’s coda as the ensemble and character work pay dividends.
Brian Tufano’s lensing of the nondescript Nottingham locations is smart without showing off, and editing is trim, with only about five minutes of spare flesh in the final third.