Would you agree to plumb your personal life on national TV with the author of What Are These Strawberries Doing on My Nipples: I Need Them for the Fruit Salad! (no, it’s not Nigella Lawson)? The working-class extended family of Shane Meadows’s third feature would, joining British chat-show host Vanessa Feltz for much metaphorical nipple exposure. A pair of sexless marrieds, loudmouth Carol (Kathy Burke) and cowboy manqué Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), address their bedroom blahs; sister-in-law Shirley (Shirley Henderson) rejects a marriage proposal from sad-puppy boyfriend Dek (Rhys Ifans); and Shirley’s old flame back in Glasgow, petty thief Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), catches the whole debacle on the telly and hightails to Nottingham, carrying a sack of dubiously procured cash and designs on wooing back Shirley and their daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins).
Replete with low-angle gunslinger shots grafted out of Leone, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands unfolds as a protracted showdown between stammering, whingey pushover Dek and cool-jerk deadbeat dad Jimmy (“this Zorro figure waiting in the shadows,” quoth Dek)—the film might be termed a Pot Noodle western. (Bulk stacks of the ubiquitous British meal-in-a-cup teeter in Charlie’s bathroom, where the director favors us with ample glimpses of the aspiring c&w performer making business calls from the throne.) In his previous film, A Room for Romeo Brass, Meadows staged a similar clash between a prodigal father and an attentive oddball, but then engineered a bracing reversal of expectations (a back flip made possible only by the acting acrobatics of Paddy Considine as the misfit). Midlands, meanwhile, is a self-avowed fairy tale, wherein the outcome always lies in sight.
That said, Henderson of the velvet-and-helium voice makes a princess without rival, and Atkins’s turn as precocious Marlene provides further proof of Meadows’s talent—obvious since his debut, Twentyfourseven—for eliciting plaintive, unaffected performances from young actors. (Romeo Brass himself, Andrew Shim, also pops up in a small role, at one point sporting a thong.) But there are pages missing from this fable: Meadows reports that his financiers asked him to cut one-quarter of his original script just before production began, and his fondness for long takes sits uneasily beside the apparent gaps in the narrative; the knotty, baggage-laden relationship between Carol and her foster brother Jimmy, for example, is introduced and then inexplicably abandoned. And while Meadows always relies too heavily on his soundtrack to program emotion, on this count, the difference between Romeo’s room and Finn’s midlands is the difference between the Specials and Sarah McLachlan.