Middleness. The middle class. The middle ground between between self-expression and conformity. Being on the fence—in the middle—about your life, about the people you're living with. Middleness can be the stuff of American sitcoms, but rarely American movies, unless they're suggesting, like American Beauty (1999), that middleness is a sign of spiritual bankruptcy. The strangeness of the everyday middle on the big screen is part of the charm of the British comedy Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (Sony Pictures Classics), which is set in the middle of the UK among the middle class. The joke is the way the director sometimes frames these middling people and their Barcaloungers and bingo parlors like characters in a Sergio Leone Western, while the soundtrack gives you Ennio Morricone-style twangy guitars and a lone harmonica and horsey clip-clops. The overall effect is deflating: The Western movie mythos turns these middle-class tussles into the stuff of farce. But a deflated mythic structure is more comforting than no structure at all. The sheer novelty of the enterprise is probably why Once Upon a Time in the Midlands has gotten so many rave reviews when it's actually sort of … middling.
The movie is directed by 31-year-old Shane Meadows, whose last two films, 24 7 (1997) with Bob Hoskins and A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), had a quasi-documentary style and were low on whimsy. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is Whimsy City. The Mike Leigh influence is gone: In a typical Leigh film, the faceless housing developments and identical townhouses grind down and constrain a person's individuality. Here, Meadows wants to show that inside those same houses and uniforms are people styling themselves in hilariously different ways, like the overweight, underemployed guy (Ricky Tomlinson) in the 10-gallon cowboy hat … or the three central characters, played by actors—Rhys Ifans, Shirley Henderson, and Robert Carlyle—who transcend the movie's predictability with their through-and-through oddballness.
First we meet Shirley (Henderson), who has been corralled into appearing on an afternoon chat show to comment on the strange estrangement of her sister-in-law, Carol (Kathy Burke), from Carol's husband, Charlie (Tomlinson)—who Carol says she loves but won't allow to sleep in the family house. Carol's story is a ruse, however: Shirley's boyfriend Dek (Ifans) shows up to propose marriage on the air—whereupon Shirley gets flustered and, before an aghast audience, says no. Far away, in Glasgow, Shirley's abandoning ex-husband, Jimmy (Carlyle), a petty criminal, watches with wide eyes: Maybe that woman of his was worth something, after all! The rest of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is a buildup to the showdown between Dek and Jimmy over a woman who's paralyzed with indecision: Dek is a sweetie (if slightly hysterical) and a good surrogate dad to her and Jimmy's young daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins). But Jimmy has that gunslinger bad-boy heat.
Ifans—who played Hugh Grant's skinny flatmate in Notting Hill (1999) and the jungle-boy-turned-aristocrat in Charlie Kaufman's Human Nature (2002)—has put on weight and looks helpless and befuddled in that big new body. He's like a Welsh Fred Gwynne, which isn't a slight. (Gwynne was a great clown.) And that voice of Henderson's is magic. She was unforgettable as the junkie soprano in Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy (2000), and she had small parts in Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) and as the ghost in the girls' loo in the last Harry Potter movie. Here she's a dark, squirmy, twittery little thing, a warm-blooded sparrow. As the outlaw ex-husband who marches through the non-swinging pub door to get her back, Carlyle gives one of his riotously contained performances: This wiry little guy just stands there smoldering in his leather jacket and ponytail and looks like he could rip the head off Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I couldn't understand half the dialogue but I didn't care, because the sounds coming out of the actors' mouths were so funny and expressive. The framing and editing are agreeably loose, and it's great that the violence—just fisticuffs—is shot from a distance to make it look clumsy and idiotic. But the structure of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is a mess. The script (co-written with Paul Fraser) was reportedly pared down (on the order of the financiers) right before shooting commenced, and so the sister-in-law subplot has no punch line, and the ensemble cast introduced early on is largely unused. The film turns serious when Dek betrays Jimmy to a posse of hooligans Jimmy ripped off back in Glasgow, but the final showdown—which should be crazy and scaled big (why else invoke Sergio Leone?) is cozy Lifetime TV movie stuff.
Above all, Meadows never finds a way to use the Sergio Leone quotations to give the characters more, not less, stature—to pull you in emotionally instead of throwing you out. So, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands ends up feeling compromised by its own cuteness. It's a peculiar and unsatisfying attempt to fuse Meadows' edgy, documentary instincts and his (and his financiers') desire for an art-house U.S. hit on the order of The Full Monty (1997). It should have been called Once Upon a Time in the Middle of the Road.