Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Once Upon a Time In The Midlands

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS

2/10

UK 2002 : Shane Meadows : 104 mins

Garage-owner Dek (Rhys Ifans) lives in a quiet street in a Nottinghamshire suburb with his girlfriend Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and 12-year-old Marlene (Finn Atkins), Shirleys daughter from her earlier marriage to small-time Glasgow criminal Jimmy (Robert Carlyle). Dek proposes marriage to Shirley live on national TV but she turns him down, and their relationship is placed under further strain when Jimmy unexpectedly arrives on the scene, on the run after a robbery and keen to displace Dek in the affections of Shirley and Marlene. Across the road, meanwhile, live Jimmys foster-sister Carol (Kathy Burke) and her husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson) known as Nashville Charlie, a country-and-western nut who performs tribute material to his musical heroes at the local working mens club.

Once Upon A Time...Meadows is clearly a talented director the handling of child actors is a reliable litmus test for directorial skill, and he passes it with honours: Atkins follows in the footsteps of the remarkable Andrew Shim from Meadows last film, A Room For Romeo Brass. But his script-writing is another matter entirely. Romeo Brass was effective as an edgy, dark drama, but fell woefully flat when it tried to be comic with this followup, Meadows has taken the disastrous move of emphasising the comedy at the expense of the drama, and he simply isn’t up to the task.

A depressing compendium of tired jokes and undeveloped ideas, Midlands feels like a pilot for a very bad sitcom not least because, in a nod to classics of that small-screen genre like Are You Being Served? and Hi-de-Hi, the end picture-credits are preceded by a caption that reads You have been watching. Even the title is a misfire surely Once Upon a Time in the West Midlands would have been a funnier twist on Sergio Leones original. But Meadows sets all of his work in his own back-yard of Nottinghamshire, which is, slightly over to the east side of the country.

Its never explained, however, why there are so few locals on view of the main cast, only Shirley and Marlene speak with anything like Nottinghamshire accents, and its perhaps no coincidence that these are the two characterisations which avoid predictable stereotyping. Because Meadows deployment of his big-name Brit actors is quite stunningly unimaginative: Carlyle, Burke and Tomlinson adhering rigidly to their established screen personas.

Given the circumstances, they do as well as can be expected with their underwritten roles but Meadows allows Ifans to zoom embarrassingly over the top into caricature as Welsh milquetoast Dek. Just as Romeo Brass featured a character obsessed with buses, Dek is fanatical about cars he wears vile driving gloves, calls his vehicle Baby, and subscribes to Classic Ford magazine and its a thoroughly lazy, depressingly cliched kind of funny characterisation, sadly typical of Meadows general off-target approach.

His dialogue lurches from bad to worse at one point, Dek ticks off Jimmy with the line Take your new gay haircut and flip off!, to which Carol retorts You can talk, peanut head!, while the closure of the local pit is dismissed in only the briefest of glib asides. Midlands thus joins a depressingly long line of patronising, mirthless comedies based around British working-class life, a roll of bleak dishonour that includes Purely Belter, Brassed Off and House! Such films bear the same relation to the likes of Mike Leighs All Or Nothing, Ambers Like Father or Peter Kays small-screen Phoenix Nights as Charlies bad-karaoke renditions do to the Nashville originals, every mangled note ringing as false as a $3 bill.

26th August 2002
(seen 20th, Cameo Edinburgh Edinburgh Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.

For other films rated 1/10 and 2/10 check out our Diorama of Dishonour.

by Neil Young