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Directors have long exploited the distance between everyday life in the British Isles and the Old West myths imported from Hollywood. David Attwood’s Wild West, for example, depicted tumbleweeds blowing through the streets of a predominantly Indian West London neighborhood. And Mike Newell’s Into the West followed two Irish boys who imagine themselves cowboys as they ride from Dublin toward the setting sun. But the old countries have rarely looked more American than in Shane Meadows’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, whose sputtering spaghetti-Western parody begins when befuddled small-time thug Jimmy (Robert Carlyle) recognizes some people on a Jerry Springer-style TV show.
Probably hung-over and definitely in Glasgow, Jimmy can identify his peppery foster sister, Carol (Kathy Burke), and her husband, Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), an easygoing lug with hopeless aspirations of being a professional C&W singer. Next up on the program is Carol and Charlie’s neighbor Shirley (Shirley Henderson), Jimmy’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend and the mother of their daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins). All of them live in the Nottingham suburbs, Meadows’ home turf, which Jimmy fled a few years before. Inspired by the sight of Shirleyand the fact that he’s being pursued by three Scottish hoodlums he betrayed after a bungled robberyJimmy starts hitchhiking south with a sign that reads, “Midlands.”
Thanks to the TV show, Jimmy knows that he has a rival. Dek (Rhys Ifans) lives with Shirley and is a devoted dad to Marlene. Yet Dek, who’s the manager of a local Clutch Hutch auto-repair service, is a bit of a wimp, so Shirley won’t marry him. In fact, she spurned his proposal on the very program Jimmy watched. This humiliating public rejection is one reason Jimmy believes he can reclaim Shirley and Marlene, and he seems to be right: When all Dek can do about Jimmy’s arrival is whimper, Shirley begins to accept her bullying exeven though Marlene pointedly will not. Dek, meanwhile, makes a series of wrong moves, yet there’s always a chance that he can redeem himself. (If he’d seen Meadows’ last movie, A Room for Romeo Brass, he’d know exactly what to do.)
Although Midlands takes place in a slightly more upscale dismal suburb than Romeo Brass and its predecessor, TwentyFourSeven, all three are closely linked. Surrogate and absent fathers are a motif in Meadows’ films (which he co-writes with childhood pal Paul Fraser), and the director’s juveniles are consistently more compelling than their elders. This time, the character of Marlene is the film’s subtlest; even Jimmy and Shirley are thin creations whose substance comes more from Carlyle and Henderson than from the script. Still, because the movie is a semifarcical tale with an ensemble cast and many plot strands, the one-note characterizations might not matter muchif only Dek didn’t clang so falsely.
Carol calls Dek a “Welsh wanker,” and that’s a stereotype Ifans has embodied before, most prominently in Notting Hill. It seems odd that a young Afro-British filmmaker like Meadows, who depicts his multiracial, working-class demimonde with such freshness, would abet this particular remnant of English chauvinism. Even if Dek’s ethnicity weren’t an issue, the cartoonish role would undermine the story. Dek isn’t simply unprepared to battle a thug, an understandable shortcoming. Except when he’s with Marlene, he’s also whiny, egocentric, and unprincipledwhich makes his last-minute transformation as glib as the unearned conclusion of any big-budget Hollywood fraud.
When interviewed three years ago, Meadows revealed some of his ideas for future projects. One was to be about a boxer who has served time for killing someone in self-defense and returns home to his wife and child to find that many of his neighbors don’t want him back. Another was a “Western” featuring characters from Wales, which is indeed west of Nottingham. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands combines both notions, although its debts to Sergio Leone are few and facetious: The movie was shot in a widescreen format, with Leone-like low-angle shots, and John Lunn’s score includes such Ennio Morricone flourishes as whip cracks and spare, twangy guitar riffs. Basically, Meadows’ latest is his same old story, distinguished by a few more miscalculations than usual. Like his other work, it boasts some well-observed details and sweet moments, but there aren’t enough to offset the narrative contrivances and overly broad characters.
Hollywood now adores con men as much as it used to love cowboys, so contemporary filmgoers should find the episode that begins Autumn Spring even more familiar than a shootout at the corral: Two Czech scam artists inspect a mansion, toying imperiously with an eager real-estate agent. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Fanda (Vlastimil Brodsky) and Eda (Stanislav Zindulka) have forgotten something that’s never overlooked by American screenwriters and their protagonists: money. Fanda and Eda, retired small-time actors living on paltry pensions, are only in it for the fun, and they frequently manage to lose a few crowns (or more) on their games. This infuriates Fanda’s wife, Emílie (Stella Zázvorková), who’s channeled a lifetime of propriety into an obsession with a respectable death. She believes a man in his 70s should be saving money for a fine funeral and impressive death announcements.
Emílie isn’t the only person who’s preparing for Fanda’s demise. One of his young granddaughters draws a picture of Grandpa’s grave as a 76th-birthday present, and his thrice-married son, Jára (Ondrej Vetchy), is eying his parents’ apartment as a possible refuge from his current situation: living with his current wife, one of his exes, and their combined four children. Fanda refuses to leave his home, however, and he continues indulging in such spontaneous pranks as pretending to be a ticket inspector on the Prague subway or convincing a befuddled passer-by that he’s a long-lost best friend. (He can also be gallant, whether dispensing money to needy strangers or defending a battered wife who lives in his building.) Then three developments unnerve the playful old codger: The real-estate agent tracks him down and demands repayment of the expenses for showing Fanda and Eda a property they had no intention of buying, Eda becomes ill, and Emílie announces that she wants a divorce. Respectability seems to have triumphed, but Jirí Hubac’s script still needs a third act.
Autumn Spring doesn’t simply star Brodsky, a beloved Czech actor for some 50 years. It also was modeled on his twinkly, outsize personality by Hubac, a lifelong pal. Director Vladimír Michálek is in his 40s, but in a sense he too had known Brodsky for decades. The actor was the reader of the stories Michálek heard on the radio as a child, and he starred in such well-known Czech movies as Closely Watched Trains and Larks on a String, both directed by Jirí Menzel. Although the second of those films was suppressed by the Czech communist government for 20 years, Menzel’s work is barely controversial; typically, his protagonists take a whimsical, unserious approach to life, regardless of such daunting circumstances as living under German occupation or being sent to a re-education camp.
Michálek’s film successfully evokes the spirit of Menzel’s oeuvrewhich means it’s amiable, humane, and unsurprising, with Brodsky a suitably vibrant presence. Ironically, the actor provided a darker, more paradoxical conclusion to his life than the one Hubac scripted for his alter ego: Having suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after Autumn Spring’s completion, Brodsky committed suicide in May 2002. CP