Once Upon A Time In The Midlands

on August 29, 2003 by Chris Wiegand
For several years now Shane Meadows has been honing a characteristically British yet resolutely individual blend of quirky comedy and acute social commentary. Filming in and around the suburbs of Nottingham, he's carved out a physical and emotional territory all of his own.

"Once Upon A Time in the Midlands" is the final film in his Midlands trilogy, an affectionate set that includes "TwentyFourSeven" and "A Room For Romeo Brass." Despite boasting more stars than the previous pictures put together, this faux Western is a frustratingly uneven affair. While Meadows strives to ape the epic breadth of the genre and sets up a classic dramatic conflict, his film falters from too many of the kind of formulaic gags that would fit more happily on the small screen. Worse than a Western romcom, it's a Western sitcom.

Rhys Ifans ("Notting Hill") stars as the limp-wristed, well-meaning loser Dek, who plays happy families with his simpering girlfriend Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and her smart daughter Marlene (an impressive Finn Atkins). Dek endeavours to seal his relationship with Shirley by proposing live on TV. Shocked and more than a little embarrassed, she declines. Meanwhile, the lamentable spectacle catches the attention of Shirley's former beau (and Marlene's father), brooding small-time crook Jimmy (a Begbie-styled Robert Carlyle). Seizing the opportunity to reclaim his gal and get his life back on track, Jimmy heads for the Midlands for a showdown with the dejected Dek.

This ensemble comedy benefits from strong supporting turns from popular British TV stars Kathy Burke and Ricky Tomlinson. One of the funniest sequences--a bungled robbery that recalls the slapstick violence of Meadows' hysterical "Where's The Money, Ronnie?"--stars cult comics Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. If the chemistry between the film's principal stars is impressive that's partly because most have shared the screen before, in fare as diverse as "Riff-Raff," "The 51st State" and "Dancing At Lughnasa." Starring Rhys Ifans, Robert Carlyle, Kathy Burke, Ricky Tomlinson, Finn Atkins and Shirley Henderson. Directed by Shane Meadows. Written by Shane Meadows and Paul Fraser. Produced by Andrea Calderwood. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Comedy/Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 104 min

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