Once Upon a Time in the Midlands

Movie Information

Genre: Drama Comedy
Director: Shane Meadows
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans, Shirley Henderson, Ricky Tomlinson, Kathy Burke
Rated: R

Here’s a nice little film from 2003 that hasn’t played in this area until now. Advertised as “a tinned-spaghetti western,” the movie is a clever and generally successful attempt to present a British domestic drama with comedic overtones, all in the style of a Sergio Leone western. Now, that idea probably sounds just a little bit screwy on the surface, but when you factor in the Brits’ longstanding fascination with the idea of the American West, it’s a lot less so.

Elton John (whose Tumbleweed Connection album has strong country-western underpinnings) once gave us a song called “Roy Rogers.” The Electric Light Orchestra sang of how they’d like to be a “Wild West Hero.” In the 1997 documentary, Ken Russell In Search of the English Folk Song, the filmmaker was directed to a neighbor he was assured was an expert on the topic, only to discover the fellow was an expert on American country-western music. (I’d not be even slightly surprised to find that this fellow was the basis for Ricky Tomlinson’s character here.) Once Upon a Time, then, is just a playfully logical extension of this theme, and it’s done in the most British style imaginable.

The story starts when thoroughly no-good (and basically inept) petty criminal Jimmy (Robert Carlyle, Formula 51) sees his ex-wife, Shirley (Shirley Henderson, Bridget Jones’s Diary), turn down a marriage proposal from the upright and rather dull Dek (Rhys Ifans, Deckchair Danny) on a national TV program. Then Jimmy “rides into town” and tries to shoehorn his way back into Shirley’s life. The plot is fairly simple and straightforward, and its Western aspects, though undeniably present, are pleasantly unforced. (A priceless moment comes when Dek, armed with a power-drill as a six-shooter, squares off against his rival.)

What really works about the film is its basic humanity and attention to detail. Anyone familiar with British middle-class life will find much that is familiar here.

If the film has any significant failing, it lies in the character of Shirley, who seems less sketched-in than her two suitors — to the point that you wonder why they want her in the first place. But as charming, off-beat entertainment, this movie’s certainly worth catching up with. Rated R for language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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