British filmmaker Shane Meadows may share his first name with Alan Ladd's classic antihero, but he lacks the bullets to pull off "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands," his attempt at a western-influenced romance set in contemporary, working-class England. An odd mixture of Sergio Leone and BBC social realism, the film owes its title and much of its music to the western genre as well as a plot that features the return of a black hat determined to win back his woman.
It's a compelling and ambitious idea, but one that misfires because of its underwhelming characters and slack storytelling.
The film opens with one of those television talk shows where people try to work out their relationships in front of a studio audience. Carol (Kathy Burke) is complaining about her estranged, country-and-western-crooning husband, Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), with support from her extended family, including sister-in-law Shirley (Shirley Henderson).
The show pulls a switch when Shirley's boyfriend, Dek (Rhys Ifans), suddenly appears and, much to her mortification, proposes in front of much of the couch-bound populace of the U.K., including Carol's foster brother Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), watching in Scotland.
Jimmy is the father of Shirley's 12-year-old daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins), but has been absent from the scene for some time, with Dek believing him to be in jail. Shirley's subsequent, teary refusal catches Jimmy's attention, planting the idea for a return from Glasgow to try to win her back from the sheepish Dek.
In the film's most surreal sequence, Jimmy attempts a robbery with his crew. They pick him up in what appears to be a stretch Mini-Cooper and proceed to ambush a car full of clowns. A brawl erupts between the clowns and the goons, but Jimmy makes off with a bagful of cash as the cops nab his accomplices, adding a sense of urgency to his trip south.
Once he arrives in Nottingham and disrupts their lives, Shirley is left to choose between the steady but dull Dek, who runs a garage, and Jimmy, the bad-boy ne'er-do-well who makes her heart race. Talk about a Hobson's choice.
Though Dek is made to be the decent guy and Ifans brings an attractive quirkiness to the part, you don't root for him wholeheartedly. Dek is immature and fairly selfish, and although he has a good relationship with Marlene, he's not entirely what you would call good parenting material.
Jimmy, of course, is charming and sexy, but he's also lazy and spends a lot of time playing air guitar. Since the film is structured around Shirley's decision it becomes difficult to remain engaged when you find yourself not really caring who she chooses.
The filmmaker does, however, have genuine affection for Nottingham and manages to avoid cliches in rendering the lives of the working-class characters. It is his third film set in the Midlands, all written with childhood friend Paul Fraser, and all three benefit from the verisimilitude gained from them having grown up there.
As he did with "A Room for Romeo Brass," Meadows shows a facility for working with children, coaxing an impressive film debut from young Atkins. Marlene possesses a maturity and wariness lacking in the adults that surround her and she proves to be the film's true hero.
At 30, Meadows has already demonstrated he is an interesting filmmaker with his previous features "TwentyFourSeven" and "Romeo Brass" and numerous shorts.
There may not be enough here to make "Midlands" live up to the director's aspirations, but there is enough promise for us to anticipate Meadows' subsequent films and plead, "Shane! Shane! Come back!"
'Once Upon a Time in the Midlands'
MPAA rating: R, for language.
Times guidelines: Heavy accents disguise much of the swearing, with some Three Stooges-style violence.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Shane Meadows. Producer Andrea Calderwood. Executive producers Paul Webster, Paul Trijbits, Hanno Huth. Screenplay by Paul Fraser & Shane Meadows. Cinematographer Brian Tufano. Editors Trevor Waite, Paul Beston. Costume designer Robin Fraser Paye. Music John Lunn. Production designer Crispian Sallis. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In limited release.