Greetings to the New Brunette

Shirley Henderson juggles a love triangle in the Midlands

Recently, ornithologists in Antarctica made a startling discovery: Female emperor penguins, being forced against their wills to endure stern patriarchal societal norms, tend to practice iffy mating habits. Close scrutiny revealed that most adult females go bonkers struggling to choose between an exciting-but-destructive "bad boy" penguin and a dependable-but-boring "good boy" penguin, promoting multiple neuroses for all concerned, with any resulting little penguins left waddling around the ice wondering what the hell is going on.

Actually, that's a total lie, but it neatly establishes the theme of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, which features neither Antarctic settings nor penguins but does take place near the center of an emotionally chilly island where women are still sometimes called "birds." In this case, the bird in question is the wonderful Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle from the second Harry Potter movie), whose character--also called Shirley--is faced with a dilemma. Her cooing, dove-like man Dek (Rhys Ifans, Spike from Notting Hill) mortifies her by proposing on live British television, catching the hawk-eye of dastardly Jimmy (Robert Carlyle, Gaz from The Full Monty), who flew the coop 12 years earlier, immediately after their union produced a good egg named Marlene (Finn Atkins in her feature debut). When Jimmy migrates back to their humble love nest bent on aggressive romantic reclamation, Shirley tries to wing it, but Dek's feathers get ruffled.

This may sound like a standard-issue romantic comedy, but director Shane Meadows and regular writing collaborator Paul Fraser (TwentyFourSeven) have decided to infuse their project with the extremely unlikely tone of a suburban British western. To wit: The streets are usually ghost-town empty, the crane shots echo conventions of classic showdowns and the superbly diverse score by John Lunn riffs on twangy guitar and blazing harmonica. Apparently the movie's title started off as a little giggle and just stuck, strangely influencing Midlands' overall feel.

Rhys Ifans and Shirley Henderson are two points on a love triangle in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands.
Rhys Ifans and Shirley Henderson are two points on a love triangle in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands.

If only that feel were more consistent or engrossing. While the movie makes the most of its simple settings, there's a distinct lack of tension, especially compared with Meadows' previous feature, A Room for Romeo Brass (whose lead, Andrew Shim, shows up here as a kid named Donut). That project rattled with the hard knocks of growing up, featuring fledgling yobbo Paddy Considine in a star-making role that has yet to turn him into a star--rather unfair when Nicolas Cage keeps punching the clock for multiple millions. Here, stars fill the major roles, but the movie seems overly dependent on their familiar faces, rather than giving us a sense of any real romantic risk. When one keeps noticing that Dek's rear-view mirror appears and disappears depending on the angle--an inconsistency quite common in big-budget features--it's hardly indicative of a captivating story.

Such as it is, this story is only adequately cute, charming and pleasant--very much like its hapless lovers. Scenes revolve around our leads lollygagging amid clusters of supporting characters, be they Dek's crew at the auto shop, nosy girls bugging Shirley down at the bingo hall or Jimmy and his crooked mates from Glasgow getting into a dust-up with some renegade clowns. You know, that sort of thing. All the while, girl-woman Shirley vacillates between dorky Dek and slim Jimmy, leading to a three-way confrontation that, from behind, closely resembles Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson battling over Ally Sheedy.

Goodness, maybe this movie is kind of nice after all.

No, despite personal fondness for talent and locale, I must hold ground. Carlyle pulls one good scene in which he sensitively ogles senior citizens dancing in a gazebo, but otherwise he lazily consolidates his charmer shtick and his thug shtick. (An altercation with his fed-up on-screen sister Kathy Burke proves flat-out tedious.) Ifans, meanwhile, makes the dreadful error of playing a boring doofus as... a boring doofus. Dek does scramble off with one funny line (responding to a pushy request for a kebab, he snips, "Tell you what, I'll just swim to Turkey and get you a nice, fresh one!"), but otherwise there's nothing fresh about his character as written. Also, since the movie is never established as a fantasy, I found its conclusion emotionally implausible. Alas.

But then there's Henderson, whose Shirley seems yanked straight out of Billy Bragg's song "Greetings to the New Brunette" ("Shir-leee!--your sexual politics have left me all of a muddle!"). No matter how weirdly Meadows tarts up his beloved Midlands, she's got the place wrapped around her finger. Not only is she gorgeously lensed (by superb cinematographer Brian Tufano), the star of Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, The Claim and 24-Hour Party People now knows how to own the screen. Her sparkling humanity plays splendidly off Atkins as her confused daughter, and her romantic indecision sparks magic even with her cartoony, broadly drawn beaux. This movie's just so-so, but at its heart lies a true leading lady.

 
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