It seems just about every British film washing up on American shores these days is heralded by somebody (usually an overly enthusiastic P.R. flack) as “The Next ‘Full Monty’!!!” So it should come as no surprise that people are saying precisely that about Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, especially since this latest English import stars none other than Robert Carlyle, the very man who persuaded his down-and-out mates to bare it all in that record-breaking 1997 film.
It’s true, I suppose, that there does seem to be an extraordinarily high number of feel-good British movies about the trials and tribulations of working-class stiffs. And it’s also true that most of them – at least the ones that find distribution here in the States – share a quirky humor and unflagging spirit that sets them apart from similar independent films produced here. Still, I’d venture it’s a pretty safe bet that you won’t be finding a musical version of Once Upon A Time In The Midlands coming to Broadway any time soon. Not because it’s a bad film – it most definitely isn’t – but, because, as incredibly winning as it is, it just isn’t the same kind of hoot-and-holler crowd pleaser that made Monty such a natural for stage adaptation.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge one movie solely against another one, though; and, especially in this case, I wouldn’t want to anyway. When it comes down to it, Once Upon A Time In The Midlands is a funny, engaging charmer in its own right, with absolutely no comparisons of any sort required.
A heartfelt romantic comedy conceived somewhat strangely as a sort of modern-day, Anglo-Saxon Western (complete with mariachi score), the story concerns Jimmy (Carlyle), a good-for-nothing petty thief, who, figuratively speaking, rides into town after umpteen years, hoping to reclaim his ex-wife, Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and estranged daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins), and gallop off into the sunset with them. One thing stands in his way, however: Dek (Rhys Ifans), Shirley’s doltish-but-devoted boyfriend.
Out of this situation springs a considerable amount of supplemental hijinx, involving a middle-aged wannabe country singer, a trio of bumbling crooks, and a bingo-loving barmaid, among others. Director Shane Meadows, who co-wrote the script with Paul Fraser, appears to have a knack for capturing the dreary tedium (and frequent absurdity) of working-class English life. Thankfully, he doesn’t force the Western theme, referencing it mainly through subtle musical cues during the occasional standoff between characters.
Those characters are wonderfully portrayed by an assortment of British actors ranging from acclaimed (Kathy Burke, frequent Ab Fab guest, as Jimmy’s take-no-bullshit sister, and Henderson, amazing as the conflicted Shirley) to undiscovered (Atkins, terrific as Jimmy’s exasperated daughter). Carlyle imbues Jimmy with the perfect balance of smarmy cockiness and awkward sincerity, but although it’s his name at the top of the marquee, it is Ifans – best known as Hugh Grant’s hilariously unhygienic roommate in Notting Hill – who stands out here. In a touching performance of incredible depth, he is, without a doubt, the most pitiful, non-heroic “hero” to grace the screen so far this year.
In that regard, I guess Once Upon A Time In The Midlands isn’t quite so different from The Full Monty after all. Then again, if Billy Elliott was the next Full Monty, and Bend It Like Beckham is the new Billy Elliott, then wouldn’t Once Upon a Time In The Midlands be the next Beckham? Just asking.
(Appeared in Gay City News)