Cinema Signal:

Hibernian Green on the Silver Screen:
The Irish and American Movies

. "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands"

A pretty rotten guy who left his wife and child for a life of criminal adventure wakes up one morning three years later to see his wife on a TV show being proposed to. The TV moment falls flatter than a plasma screen when the wife says, "No", on camera. TV shows aren't supposed to have rejections. But our villain, Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) takes some cheer from it and gets an idea. After he betrays his chums in a small-time caper, absconds with the loot, he sets out for a comeback with the wife. She turned the loser down on TV, didn't she?

So, what we have is a love triangle -- one in which the other two parts of it, sexily raspy-voiced Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and lumberingly inept Dek (Rhys Ifans) are living together as a family in Dek's house with Shirley's outstanding little girl Marlene (a debuting, sensational Finn Atkins) constantly professing their love for each other. So, why did Shirley turn Dek down on national telly? Presumably because she still feels something for the wastrel husband lurking somewhere out there in the badlands of Glasgow.

Which, of course, sets the stage for his reappearance in her life. The shaky foundations of domesticity are upset even more than Jimmy could have wished for. It's not that Shirley, clearly an object of any man's desire, is confused. She just seems to be in love with whichever man is in her presence at any time, sending Jimmy into her home (which is really Dek's house) and causing Dek to run away. But, not so fast. There are others who have a say in this.

Most of all pre-teen Marlene, who dearly loves Dek as though he were her real father. As awkward and wimpy as he is, he's the most loving and dependable of the two fathers and, when her mother's poor choice threatens that which she holds dearest, she tries to take off with the father she prefers.

Others involved in the drama of mixed up allegiences are Jimmy's mouthy sister Carol (Kathy Burke) who sees his errant ways but has been his wife's best friend as well, and her hubby, folk singing Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), faithful as well to both sides. There are also the guys at Dek's auto business, and Jimmy's gang coming after him for revenge and the money. It has to be pointed out that much of the dialogue, especially from these supporting players, is obscured by deep regional dialects with no translation in sight. American ears will miss some of it.

Though Robert Carlyle ("The Full Monty") seems to show up in a lot of roles that seem too big for his screen stature, he's tailer-cut for this one, providing the uneasiness of the threatening sociopath with enough magnetism that you don't wish for Robert DeNiro or Mitchum. Rhys Ifans (The Shipping News, Notting Hill), playing the wronged, over the top (below the bottom?) weakling to a point beyond what sympathy requires, strains credulity and our ability to care, but not quite to the breaking point. Standout is honest little 12-year old Finn Atkins who, with an adorable Shirley Henderson (Topsy-Turvy, Bridget Jones's Diary - soon to be seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as Moaning Myrtle), are worth the price of admission.

Nottingham-Midlands Writer-director Shane Meadows (A Room for Romeo Brass - 1999) has brought film knowledge and taste to the creation of this western-styled but city-set take on the love triangle but, with co-writer Paul Fraser, made some choices that put ultimate audience involvement with his characters into question. The one on which the film's success depends is crucial... "is a woman who is professing her love for one man one minute, then betraying him by falling into the arms of another at the next minute, worthy of our hero's faithfulness?" Or, our interest? Despite serious elements of family love throughout the film, an injustice will be felt whichever way she ultimately decides, as will a sense of behavioral simplicity, if not falsity.

The film is worth a look if you don't go looking for Sergio Leone's classic, "Once Upon a Time in America."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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