The great classic that never was, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands boasted the Britain’s biggest directing talent, Shane Meadows, alongside its finest actors – Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans and Kathy Burke. The tale, a modern Western set in Nottingham, promised to be a breath of fresh air.
Sadly, despite some lovely acting, it all ended up a bit stale. Meadows possesses an undoubted gift for capturing bottled-up emotions and their explosive release, but it doesn’t stretch to bittersweet comedy. Despite the introduction of Mr Bittersweet himself, Ricky Tomlinson, and the acting range of the cast, the film swerves wildly down the hill on which much of the action is set.
Shirley lives with her 12-year-old daughter Marlene. Marlene’s Dad, Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) is a n’er-do-well who jumped ship years earlier for a life of violent crime. Instead Shirley is shacked up with the decent but dull Dek (Rhys Ifans).
But when Dek proposes on live TV and Shirley refuses, it puts an immediate strain on the relationship. Matters get worse when Jimmy sees the show and turns up to win Shirley back. Charismatic and dangerous, Jimmy is the excitement that Shirley longs for but, of course, once the chase is won, Jimmy reverts to type.
The battle then is on for the good honest Dek to win Shirley back. Marlene is onside, but Jimmy’s sister Carol (Kathy Burke), and her estranged husband Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), who both live on the same street as Shirley but in different houses, are less sure.
It takes some appalling selfishness on Jimmy’s part and plenty of courage bolstering by Marlene to force Dek into a showdown with the man who has stolen his true love.
Having been handed everything on a plate thanks to his success with TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass, Shane Meadows pushed too far with this film, attempting to combine comedy with grit. The comedy fell flat on its face, undermining the film.
Despite that, brilliance shines through in the confrontation scenes. Kathy Burke shouting at Robert Carlyle, her brother in the film, is a tremendous example of how you can love and hate those closest to you at the same time. Equally, the showdown between Rhys Ifans’ character and Robert Carlyle is a brilliant study of how situations and emotions can suddenly switch, with tremendous force.
Viewing the apparently non-sensical but immediately understandable emotional interplay between adults is a life-affirming experience and if only the film had decided to ditch the light humour and run with a tougher story, it could well have become a classic.
But as it turned out the film was, and felt like, a waste. It knocked Meadows off course but he came back and in (2004) produced the award-winning Dead Man’s Shoes which in many respects is the tougher darker version of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands that would have made it.
Picking up one award, Meadows confessed: “I pretended I didn’t care about awards, but it’s great to be back up here.” He’ll be up there again in the future, and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands looks set to become the notable flop in an otherwise brilliant career.