Once Upon a Time in the Midlands

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 06/05/03 05:25:35

"Disappointingly weak in every respect."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SEATTLE FILM FESTIVAL: Shane Meadows is a guy who always seems to make good 'small' movies. Twenty Four Seven, A Room for Romeo Brass, Small Time, these are all decent little flicks that don't disappoint, and even occasionally show a hint of greatness. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is the exception to the rule - a weak concept with a weak script where even great actors can't seem to rise above the mediocrity surrounding them.

A Scottish thief named Jimmy (Carlyle) sees his ex-girlfriend (Henderson) on a TV talk show refusing marriage to a Welsh git (Ifans). In a moment of nostalgia he decides she should be with him again and duly treks to the English Midlands to find her, win her back and ride off into the sunset. Meanwhile, Jimmy's sister (Burke) runs a burgeoning household of characters who we're supposed to feel all warm-hearted about. Boredom ensues.

Supposedly Once Upon a Time in The Midlands is a modern day take on the old western premise of two cowboys wanting the same girl and realizing that the only way to settle things is to go mano et mano. But with the exception of a little (bad) country and western score and a character who likes to sing the stuff, all comparisons with the wild west are a stretch. There are no clever homages here, no smart twists, no great showdowns or memorable stand-offs. At best the western connection is silly. At worst, it's one of the weakest gimmicks of recent times.

Rather than make a good movie and use the western-inspired premise as a clever addition, Meadows has started out with the western premise and tried to throw a movie around it. The result is not his finest hour.

Actors that you're used to seeing light up the screen (Carlyle, Burke) turn in lazy one-dimensional performances. A storyline that starts off looking like it might have potential instead peters out into a series of predictable romantic cliches. And worst of all, the script itself is so tired it should be snoring.

At one point in the film, a gang of old tough guys gets into a fight you expect them to win easily, only for them to end up almost collapsing in exhaustion and duly getting their asses kicked. The scene drags out for far longer than it should and only serves as a point of comparison as to how everything else in the film is equally exhausted.

Not that OUATITM (I refuse to type it out again) is an awful movie... it's just not a very good one, and that's a shame with the amount of acting talent on display. Kathy Burke is that rarest of modern-day actresses - approaching middle-age, far from gorgeous, and so capable of handling comedy or drama at a high level that producers don't care how she looks. At times in this film she's allowed to demonstrate that skill, invariably opposite Carlyle, and she leaves him looking just woeful.

Carlyle is almost always peerless, no matter what he's in, but in this film he just seems to have no idea what's driving his character, or how to take that character beyond 'generic bad boy'. While he's normally the best bad ass in the business, this could well be his worst performance yet. Admittedly, female romantic lead Shirley Henderson doesn't give him much to work with, as her mousey voice tends to prove more of a distraction than a selling point, and her doe-eyed emoting couldn't have been less effective had it been coming from Freddy Prinze Jr.

Which leads us to Rhys Ifans. Still riding high on his Notting Hill fame, Ifans is perhaps the most effective of everyone in this cast, playing an absolute dolt of a man trying to compete with the bad boy ex, but the character is hardly a stretch.

And that's this movie to a T - it's hardly a stretch. Audiences will find it amiable enough, the laughs come by with enough regularity to keep the flick from being damned by those who pay good money to see it, but it's hard to get enthused in a romance where the romantic triangle contains not one person an audience can really root for. Personally, I was more interested in the largely undiscussed romance between Burke's teenage daughter and her live-in boyfriend. And that should tell you all you need to know about the romance I was *supposed* to care about.

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