- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

The spaghetti-Western conventions in “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands” are hard to spot, set as the movie is in contemporary working-class England, but they’re there.

There’s a mano y mano showdown; a saloon; a soundtrack that makes you think cactuses could grow smack-dab in the middle of a Nottingham apartment project.

These subtle charms give dramatic scope to what’s really a tightly focused suburban comedy that, though funny, is dampened by heartbreaks big and small and the daily grind and grime of paycheck-to-paycheck living.

With cramped, neo-functionalist housing as a backdrop, Shane Meadows, the director and co-writer, tells a simple story: two guys, one girl.



Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) is a Byronic greaser, mad, bad and dangerous to know, a small-time crook in semipermanent exile in Glasgow, Scotland.

Back in Nottingham, his old flame, Shirley (Shirley Henderson), is raising their daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins), with the help of live-in boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans).

Dek manages a car-repair shop called the Clutch Hutch; he’s a nebbish — klutzy and soft, but safe and predictable, unlike the hotheaded, absentee Jimmy.

After Shirley turns down Dek’s marriage proposal — in front of a national audience on an ambush-TV talk show, no less — Jimmy sees his chance for a triumphant return to reclaim his brood.

Things aren’t that easy, of course, as Jimmy, with a gang of goons whom he double-crossed on his trail, upsets the lives not only of his immediate family, but of his extended one, as well — a sister, Carol (a wonderfully no-nonsense Kathy Burke) and her husband, Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), a wannabe country crooner from whom she’s separated but with whom she’s still chummy, and their lot of children.

Marlene, played with the perfect balance of steeliness and compassion by the young Finn Atkins, is the real hero of the movie.

Barely into her teens, Marlene has a sharper moral sense than her confused mom, who’s torn in myriad directions by flickers of heat for bad-boy Jimmy, a desire that her daughter be raised by her natural father and an appreciation for Dek’s stability.

In one particularly effective scene, Shirley, wasted drunk, is literally caught standing between Jimmy and Dek as the man in black leather waltzes into the bar.

Mr. Meadows pans closely into each of the trio’s faces. No one speaks. No one needs to; their faces say it all. Shirley remembers her love with Jimmy. It probably was full of chills and thrills, unlike the even contentment she shares with Dek.

Jimmy remembers it, too, and Mr. Carlyle gives his character, normally volatile and cocky, a look of rare profundity, as if he’s faintly aware of the damage he has sown.

And Dek: Dek is a bag of nerves. Essentially good-natured and loyal but fatally insecure, he betrays an envy for Jimmy’s wiry machismo, an envy that leads to a stupid and hurtful miscalculation later.

“Midlands” is predictable but nonetheless affecting. Like its flawed characters, it’s more complex than it seems — flinty, real and full of heart.

***

TITLE: “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands”

RATING: R (Frequent profanity; mild violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Shane Meadows. Produced by Andrea Calderwood. Written by Paul Fraser and Mr. Meadows. Photography directed by Brian Tufano. Music by John Lunn.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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