People who read movie reviews are fond of cornering critics at a party and demanding: “Why can’t movie reviewers just relax and enjoy a nice comedy instead of tearing it apart? What makes reviewers so crabby?” Because sometimes, albeit very rarely, that harmless little comedy could be much better but simply doesn’t know how to go about it. And that’s frustrating.
A case in point is Shane Meadows’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. Frustration, in fact, is the name of the game in director/co-writer Meadows’ third feature (he did TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass). The film’s female lead, a petite, not especially bright Nottingham shopgirl named Shirley (Shirley Henderson), can’t seem to make up her bloody mind about anything. She and her twelve-year-old daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins), are living at the home of her new boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans) while on the rebound from a failed relationship with abusive Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), who has run off to Glasgow. As the film opens, Shirley is appearing on one of those excruciating TV talk shows. Suddenly, Dek appears from backstage to propose to her in front of a national TV audience. Dek is a bit of a clot, his speech is sappy, and Shirley is somewhat undecided (chronically, as we shall see), so she turns him down. Meanwhile Jimmy, loafing in Glasgow, spies the show and decides — after an amusing hoods vs. clowns stickup with his thuggish Scots friends — to visit Shirley and win her back.
For an unassuming romantic comedy set in the gray heartland of England, Meadows’ domestic derby is drastically front-loaded with acting talent. Carlyle and Ifans are probably the best known to American audiences, and they both play pretty much according to type. That is, Carlyle’s Jimmy is more in his Trainspotting /old man McCourt mode — a substance-abusing no-good scoundrel — than in a Full Monty cheerful-sod vein. Jimmy is the sort who would abruptly move into his rival’s house, drink up all the beer, spend his days playing air guitar, and expect his ex to fall in love with him all over again. Which she does.
Ifans’ Dek is slightly more complex. After being rejected by Shirley before an audience of millions, he seemingly thirsts for further humiliation, groveling before her and getting no respect either at home or at the auto garage he owns. Dek is devious as well as cowardly, but his deviousness — dropping a dime on Jimmy to the Glasgow hoods whose swag he ran off with — is deadly dull. The only time Dek is relaxed and confident is when he’s entertaining the neighborhood kids. That “kick me hard” demeanor is filmmaker Meadows’ idea of a joke: in the mock-Western this story evidently started out to be, Dek is the meek villager who would finally rise up and gun down the leering desperado pawing his woman. Only it doesn’t quite work out that way, and the imitation-Morricone music on the soundtrack only heaps more abuse on poor Dek as he sleeps, alone, in his three-wheeled loaner car, which he dubs a “pink pig.”
Of course, both Jimmy and Dek are working-class. Everyone in the movie is working-class. If you want well-groomed, literate characters, watch Merchant-Ivory. In a different kind of story, Shirley would be the magical one, the center of attention, a woman worth fighting for — but that never really happens here. It’s as if Meadows and his writing partner Paul Fraser nurse a secret grudge against Shirley, or someone like her. To the unsung tune of “My Boyfriend’s Back” (which should have been the title of the film), Shirley and Jimmy reunite, soggily, and she falls for him again. But then she goes back to Dek. And then back to Jimmy. Henderson, an actress capable of complicated character turns in such films as Topsy-Turvy and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, tries to signal us that there’s some ambiguity going on inside Shirley’s head, but the screenplay is stacked against her. In the one scene in which we can see clearly see her motivation, it isn’t very pretty: Her glaring eyes tell us that her resentment at being taken for granted by Jimmy is stronger than whatever love she has for the humble Dek.
Crowding round the sad little triangle are Kathy Burke (the battered housewife of Nil by Mouth) as Jimmy’s sister Carol; Ricky Tomlinson (corpulent star of the hilarious UK TV series The Royle Family) as Carol’s ex, Charlie, a good-natured type who makes his living in pubs as an awful singing cowboy; and Donut (Andrew Shim), who seems to exist only to up the zaniness factor by giving Carol’s daughter a black boyfriend — he doesn’t have a line of dialogue. The shining beacon of light amid the characters, and the cast, is young Finn Atkins as Shirley’s daughter Marlene, who is wiser and more circumspect than any of the adults, naturally, and it’s clear that whichever dad she chooses is going to be it.
The characters may be disconnected and hastily drawn, but they’re arguably lovable — a dumber, less worldly, less neurotic version of The Royal Tenenbaums. Their toothlessness is as comforting as a weak cup of tea on a cold night. When in doubt, which is often, whole families bundle together on beds and sofas like The Royle Family‘s couch spuds, but otherwise they can’t stop running. Director Meadows sets a faster pace than similar dim-bulb, lower-middle-class Brit character studies. Like a Mike Leigh film on steroids, situations don’t dawn slowly on these characters — they come crashing down on their heads. Another small complaint: the accent thing. How could Jimmy and Carol be brother and sister (even foster siblings, as she asserts), when he has a Scots burr and she has a cockney accent? Tomlinson’s “Midlands Cowboy” sounds about right, but Ifans plays Dek with his Welsh lilt intact. It’s like watching a comedy in which Joe Pesci, in Full Jersey, is supposed to be Billy Bob Thornton’s brother. Doesn’t compute. If Meadows’ rom-com trips contentedly over the subtleties, it should at least be expected to get the obvious details right.