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Saturday, June 07, 2003

SIFF, Day 13
I had to see Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, set as it is in possibly my favorite English city, Nottingham (to make a home, anyway—London’s divine, but it’s not the easiest place to live). It’s a place I know pretty well, having gone to university there and having hung around a little post-graduation, but there were very few places or situations I recognized. This isn’t Notty’s well-appointed downtown shopping, eating, and entertainment district or the touristy Robin Hood/Maid Marion stuff, it’s Carlton and Gedling. By no means the “worst” bit of Nottingham—actually, I thought the aspirational interiors of the various characters’ houses were beautifully done—but a rather bland place that lacks specificity.

Although it had been nine months since I read Mike’s review of the movie on Troubled Diva, it came to mind about five minutes in—as Mike said, one major problem is that the big names (at least in Britain) in the all-star cast play exactly to type: “[Kathy] Burke is a tough, no-nonsense, loveably hard-bitten old bird in a nasty shell-suit; [Robert] Carlyle is a dangerous, threatening eminence noir, a potential psycho who dabbles in petty crime; [Ricky] Tomlinson is an eccentric Scouser scruffbag with an essentially passive nature and a ‘heart of gold.’ ” Since Burke and Tomlinson’s type isn’t quite so cast for U.S. viewers, I wondered if last night’s audience would pick up on that, but two conversations I overheard leaving the cinema put any such questions right out of my head: Two women behind me were wondering why the accents were so dissimilar, and a group of disappointed viewers grumbled about having seen Robert Carlyle play that part about six times already. (Hey, me too, but sometimes it pays off. Think about his terrifying Begbie in Trainspotting or his incredible portrayal of a soccer fan unhinged by memories of Hillsborough in Cracker. The man can act—I just wish he were a little more choosy about the roles he accepted.)

The plot of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is your basic "torn between two lovers when an old flame rides into town" trope. Shirley (Shirley Henderson) has to pick between Dek (Rhys Ifans), a dependable Taffy plonker who’s loving and a good provider but a bit of an embarrassment, and Jimmy (Carlyle), an unreliable Jock loser who’s charismatic, sexy, and dangerous. In the end, it’s daughter Marlene’s bullshit-detecting calmness that helps Shirl make the right choice. Marlene can see that Jimmy might have the gift of the gab, but he has nothing to say. Once she helps Dek let go of the daytime-television-inspired psychobabble he usually spouts and say what he really feels, there’s no contest. Getting rid of “Baby,” his beloved status-setting car, is the best move he could make.

As always, Shirley Henderson is marvelous—her great gift is for endowing looks and silences with huge import. You don’t see the depth of her characters when she speaks, but rather when she shuts up and just stares. Finn Atkins, who played daughter Marlene with incredible composure has the same gift—and as Mike said she completely stole the show, especially in a scene where she lies in bed, gazing silently ahead trying to hold it together.