With only three films under his belt, writer/director Shane Meadows is already being lauded as one of Britain’s finest filmmakers working today. Upon viewing his third film, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, it’s easy to see why. Meadows has a singular, subtle sense of style that is delicately balanced with his gritty, human subject matter. His artsy technique and abrasive characters combine to form a bitter-sweet comedy that is distinctive, imaginative, touching, and outrageously funny. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is Meadows’ final installment in, what he calls, his “Midlands trilogy,” following his first two films: Twenty-FourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass. The three films are unrelated in storyline, but they all deal with working class characters struggling through life in the English Midlands.
Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is a comedy, though it is difficult to subscribe the film to one particular genre. It is part romance, part drama, part heist/action film, and, most intriguingly, part western. There are no cowboys on horseback, no shootouts, no desert landscapes, yet the theme of the western is undeniably present. Meadows pays homage to the films of Sergio Leone, both in the film’s title and with the film’s “spaghetti western” style score. The story follows the traditional western premise of bad guy rolling into town and disrupting the lives of the heroes and town folk. The western theme is accentuated by the cinematography, employing high-angle wide shots to simulate the broad landscapes in the American West, and using tightly edited two-shots to make the confrontations between the main characters feel more like a western showdown. One of the films secondary characters, Charlie, is the “Midlands singing cowboy,” played by Ricky Tomlinson, (who also wrote a few of the original country-western songs for his character).
The mock-western style works as a clever narrative tool for a story that is already appealing, and is carried out by a superb ensemble cast. It is the story of a typical love triangle. Shirley (Shirley Henderson) must choose between the two men she loves: her adoring, devoted, yet dull boyfriend, Dek (Rhys Ifans) and her ex, Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), a down-and-out small time thief. Dek proposes to Shirley on a daytime tabloid television chat show and is refused. The televised rejection is witnessed by Jimmy, who sees this as an opportunity to rekindle his romance Shirley and reunite with his daughter, while simultaneously avoiding the crew of bandits he has double-crossed. The characters are very well developed, and although they are each deeply flawed in their own way, they are sympathetic and loveable. As the story unfolds, a new love triangle is formed, and the audience finds themselves having as difficult of a time as Shirley choosing between the nice-but-dim Dek and the sexy-but-sleazy Jimmy. The film keeps us guessing until the very end when good guy and bad guy finally have their showdown.
This film is rated R for language.
Reviewed by Maggie