Once Upon a Time in the Midlands Movie Review

Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) is a low-life criminal who abandoned wife and child. It's been three years since he ran out on them and, one morning, he sees wife Shirley (Shirley Henderson) on a TV chat show being proposed to and rejecting her suitor. Sensing that she's moved up some in the world, this provokes him to stage a marital comeback and take advantage of what could be an opportunity. So, he finishes some business with his criminal chums, taking part in a small-time caper and, when it goes wrong, he absconds with the loot.

Meanwhile, downy-voiced, sexy Shirley lives with good-natured, easy going Dek (Rhys Ifans), her suitor on TV, and her daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins) in Dek's house. She and Dek profess their love for each other frequently enough to make you gag, which also makes you wonder why she would turn Dek down on national telly. Could she still feel something for the husband lurking somewhere out there in the badlands of Glasgow?

This sets the stage for Jimmy's spaghetti-western style reappearance as the local tough guy. And, as it turns out, the foundations of Shirley and Dek's domesticity prove shakier than even Jimmy could have wished. It's not that Shirley, clearly an object of any man's desire, is confused. She just seems to be in love with whichever man is in her presence at any time, and the main question of the film is about what choice she'll ultimately make.

Besides the effect on Dek, it's a matter of no trivial concern to pre-teen Marlene, who dearly loves Dek as though he were her real father. As awkward and wimpy as he is, he's the most loving and dependable of the two fathers and, when her mother's poor choice threatens that which she holds dearest, she tries to take off with Dek, the father she prefers.

Others involved in the drama of mixed up allegiences and emotional antics are Jimmy's mouthy sister Carol (Kathy Burke) who is aware of his errant ways but has been his wife's best friend as well; and her hubby, folk singing Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), equally faithful to both sides and caught up in its contradictions. There are also the guys at Dek's auto business who are bemused by his pathetic chest-thumping, and Jimmy's gang chasing him down for revenge and for the money.

It should be mentioned that much of the dialogue, especially from these supporting players, is obscured by deep regional dialects with no translation in sight. American ears will miss some of it.

Though Carlyle (The Full Monty) seems to show up in a lot of roles that seem too big for his screen stature, here he provides enough menace that you don't wish for Roberts De Niro or Robert Mitchum. Ifans (The Shipping News, Notting Hill), playing the wronged, cartoonish weakling to a point beyond what sympathy requires, strains credulity and our ability to give a damn about his plight. The standout is honest little 12-year old Finn Atkins in a debut role who, with Henderson (Topsy-Turvy, Bridget Jones's Diary), are worth the price of admission if you're willing to put out some cash for the contrived scenario.

Writer-director Shane Meadows (A Room for Romeo Brass) has brought film knowledge and a modicum of taste to the creation of this western-styled, city-set take on the love triangle but, with co-writer Paul Fraser, makes some choices that turns humor to silliness and his Shirley character to false simplicity. Despite endearing elements of family love throughout the film, it's done in by an exaggeration that elevates fickle to emotional stupor and sympathetic to pathetic.

Once upon a time at a screening room.

Comments

Once Upon a Time in the Midlands Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 2002

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