Published Sep 01, 2003The conceit of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is made obvious by the title classic machismo cinema against a working class British backdrop. There's no silent stranger, Eastwood-style, in Shane Meadows' love story though. Rhys Ifans plays Dek, a truly un-macho hero who must fight for the woman he loves. There are showdowns at noon, standoffs with an accompanying choir, vengeance, regret and a man with a black hat. This contrast occasionally feels a bit strained physical comedy one moment, kitchen sink drama the next but it doesn't veer too far off course. It's a sweet, but not sickly, movie that is an easy ride. And that's a nice change.
Dek appears on a daytime talk show to ask his girlfriend Shirley (Shirley Henderson) to marry him. It's an awkward, romantic gesture that is refused. Her ex-boyfriend Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), having seen the show, returns from Scotland to declare his love and reunite with Shirley and their daughter Marlene. There's also the matter of running from his "business partners" with a bag of money. The plot of Once Upon a Time isn't out of the ordinary, and all of the characters are suitably quirky, but there's a nice touch of honesty that sets the film apart. Loyalties are tested, lines are drawn and codes of ethics are challenged just like a spaghetti western except this time around there's a lot more tracksuits.
It's surprising that Ifans is cast as a romantic lead even in British cinema, where it is more likely to find oddball characters at the centre but we're with him from his first moment on screen. Ifans has an honest awkwardness, and I think that any film that pits an ineffectual petty criminal against a guy who owns a muffler shop holds promise for us all. (Mongrel Media)