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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Little House on the Pavement
By KAORI SHOJI
A woman is caught between her bad-boy, rock 'n' roll ex-husband and the sweet, adoring current lover in "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands," directed by Midlands-born Shane Meadows. This is the 31-year-old Meadows' third feature, following "TwentyFourSeven" and "A Room For Romeo Brass" -- and his first love story. The previous works had been shot quasi-documentary style with violent, gritty stories from the Midlands working class (his home turf). But with "Once Upon a Time" Meadows aims for a bigger audience and reins in his cynicism.
That's not to say that "Once Upon a Time" teeters into cuteness. Meadows simply sticks to eliciting chuckles and big smiles of empathy for the indecisive yet endearing heroine as she, her daughter and extended family all ponder over which man to choose. He trains his lens on the rows of anonymous, identical town houses and tells us that behind these windows are tales of love and yearning. Where Ken Loach or Mike Leigh would have taken the same material and turned it into a political statement, Meadows keeps the tone strictly personal, then finishes up with a family outing at the ice-skating rink, with promises of pizza afterward. He bypasses the issues of class and social underpinnings and turns up the thermostat -- feel the warmth!
He also has plenty fun stylizing this into a faux western, with swinging saloon doors (in the local bingo parlor), a distinctly country soundtrack ("Stand By Your Man" and "Shoot the Moon" are among the twangy tracks) and lines like "I want you to get out of this town and never come back" (said with a hint of Clint Eastwood drawl). In fact, Rhys Ifans, who put on weight and smoothed down his sharp Welsh edge to play the heroine's nice-guy lover, is mindful of a bumbling James Stewart minus the firearms. When it comes to a showdown, his character, Dek (who runs the local garage called Clutch Hutch), brandishes not a gun, but a power drill.
The cowboy (sort of) drama all starts when Dek chooses an appearance on a national TV talk show as the perfect opportunity to propose to Shirley. There he is, down on his knees, with a huge bouquet, telling Shirley how much he loves her and how he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. The audience looks on in smiley anticipation and the band gets ready to play the wedding march. With her big dark eyes, Shirley looks into his, and says . . . "no."
Far away in Glasgow, Shirley's ex, Jimmie (Robert Carlyle), is watching all this on TV. It's clear that Jimmie had not given Shirley and daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins) much thought since he walked out on them years ago, but now he feels a sudden need to return home and reclaim his woman. The fact that he has three hoods after him (due to a foiled holdup, after which Jimmie makes off with what little cash they managed to steal) fuels the flame. He shows up on Shirley's doorstep, certain that they can take up right where he had left off (and in the meantime he can hide from the hoods). Shirley feels a flutter for Jimmie, with his tight jeans, leather jacket and air of danger (a cowboy!) and in a weak moment, she agrees to let him stay "for a few days," explaining to Marlene that Jimmie after all, is her father. Hapless and heartbroken, Dek leaves the house.
Meadows has a special knack for working on an ensemble story, and he's in top form as he depicts Shirley's dilemma while carrying on with a spirited sub-plot unfolding in the house across the street from Shirley's. Here lives Shirley's sister-in-law, Carol (Kathy Burke), her children and sometimes-partner, Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), a country & western musician who sports a handlebar mustache and 10-gallon hat. Carol professes to love Charlie (who fathered all three of her kids), but refuses to let him into her bedroom, which when she says it, makes perfect sense.
Some of the best scenes show the two moms and their offspring spread out on the bed as they all watch the telly, the women tenderly cradling whichever child is nearest, while Dek is sent out for biscuits and cup noodles.
When Charlie comes over to Carol's ("just to hang out") everyone then sprawls on the sofa and after the kids go to bed, the couple giggle and make out. It's always a treat to watch British comedienne Kathy Burke, and her Carol is a powerhouse of lusty energy and maternal warmth. It's no wonder that when Charlie refers to her as "my woman" he does so with real swagger and pride.
"Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" is most of all about family, and is that rare vehicle that promotes family values while at the same time making you believe in them.