Moving story of British working class

By Danielle Stein

The talk show host in the first scenes of “Once Upon A Time In the Midlands” has, what Crayola would call, “Pineapple-colored hair.” We are smack dab in the land of daytime television. And within minutes it is clear that the guests on this British Ricki Lake knockoff are also the subjects of our movie and, believe it or not, our impending compassion.

Don’t snicker; this is not a Christopher Guest mockumentary. “Once Upon A Time” elicits laughter often, though not at the expense of its characters, even if they are the kind of people who comprise the train wreck that is midday programming. It turns out that some talk show guests are actually real people. Viewers will be reminded of this when they see the film’s characters sharing an excruciating car ride home from their humiliating television appearance; how jarring it is to realize that such individuals don’t cease to exist once the channel is flipped.

The talk show episode that jumpstarts the film initially centers around Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), an offbeat Brit with a cowboy getup and a guitar slung over his portly torso. He is attempting to win back his ex-wife, the vivacious, tacky, track suit-clad Carol (Kathy Burke). Nearby, poor, unsuspecting Shirley (Shirley Henderson) thinks she is there only to provide insight as a friend and neighbor to both parties, until the bottle blonde hostess turns the tables on her, bringing out Shirley’s bumbling, too-sweet boyfriend, Dek (Rhys Ifans), who proposes to her on national television with all the oratory elegance of Joe Millionaire.

Meanwhile, sitting at home viewing Shirley’s flummoxed and heartbreaking refusal, is ex-boyfriend Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), the down-and-out bad boy who fathered Shirley’s daughter, now 12, and then left town. He misses Shirley from the loneliness of his cigarette butt-infested Glasgow apartment, and decides he wants her back. He travels to the Midlands, the working class area of England and the tug-of-war between Jimmy and Dek over Shirley’s heart ensues.

Director and co-writer Shane Meadows treats the row houses of the Midlands and their inhabitants with a perfectly delicate balance of humor and seriousness, a pitch he gets right, most likely because he himself grew up (and still lives) among them. He succeeds in portraying life there – down to the social importance of bingo night – without being patronizing or condescending. He is aided by cinematographer Brian Tufano, who shows us the run-down monotony of the place, but without the stereotypical constant gray gloom that plagues so many movies about blue-collar England.

It was Meadow’s passion for westerns that propelled him to create a story that pits an ominous out-of-towner against the local good guy but, thankfully, “Once Upon A Time In the Midlands” never surrenders to such simple moral dichotomy. Jimmy may have abandoned his lover and their daughter for a life of boozing and petty crime, but the sincerity of his desire to return to them and make things right is visible in his pained expression. And Dek, misleadingly described as “decent-but-dull” in the movie’s synopsis, is actually compellingly idiosyncratic, goofy, and sensitive, but perhaps lacks the chutzpah essential to fight for those he loves.

One easily sees Shirley’s dilemma.

Shirley’s daughter, Marlene, played by the incredibly poised Finn Atkins, bears the brunt of this lovers’ triangle. The child of a young mother and an absent father, it’s obvious she had to grow up quickly, and Atkins plays the role with a stunning maturity, minus the unsettling, almost absurd composure of Dakota Fanning (“I Am Sam,” “Uptown Girls”). Tomlinson and Burke are equally impressive as estranged couple, Charlie and Carol, characters who ring true in their authentic flaws and amusing eccentricities.

But the gem in this movie is Ifans, who brilliantly erases every last ounce of the flippant arrogance he displayed as Hugh Grant’s slob flatmate in “Notting Hill.” As Dek, his moving and funny attempts at bravado (he can’t throw a punch without apologizing profusely), self-pity (he can’t gulp a post-heartbreak drink without wincing at the taste of alcohol), and every emotion in between are captivating and endearing.

At times, this romantic comedy (don’t let the references to westerns convince you it’s anything else) verges on tired cliché – it is not the first movie in which the damsel declares “It’s you I love; it’s always been you.” Fortunately, its redemption is in the details: A carload of British children, led by Charlie, belting out “Stand by your man” on the way to school; Jimmy’s awkward attempts to buy back his daughter’s love with excessive amounts of soda; the protectiveness Carol instinctively has for a husband she long since outgrew. Tenderness abounds in this film, in all of its wonderfully awkward and desperate incarnations. In the end, the schmaltz is kept in check; this movie prefers to deal in genuineness, down to a soundtrack that parallels both its quirks and naked emotion.