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Photograph by Dean Rogers

Clown Mugger: Robert Carlyle plays a petty criminal who specializes in rolling clowns in 'Once Upon a Time in the Midlands.'

'Midlands' Crisis

A man must fight for honor, even in Nottingham

By Richard von Busack

A MAN'S GOT to do what a man's got to do, even in the most uneventful part of England. Such is the moral of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. Despite the action-packed title, the visual links with Sergio Leone are few. They include some widescreen telescopic views of a dead-peaceful suburban street somewhere near Nottingham. Instead of the Spanish plains, we see an impressive establishing shot of lowering, tragic English clouds at twilight haloing a bingo parlor and, finally, the tight close-up of the restless hand of a man about to fight--the latter is a nod to Leone's love of stretching out the moment just before a gunfighter draws. However, the climactic fight between good and evil in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands winds up to a confrontation that's about as epic as a playground sucker punch.

Rhys Ifans plays Dek, a hulking, loose-faced gentle giant, the John Lithgow type, a man who wouldn't harm his dinner. He runs the Clutch Hutch auto repair and parts store. At the beginning, he foolishly proposes to his live-in girlfriend, Shirley (Shirley Henderson), on a TV show. She can't go through with it--we realize later it's because of unfinished business with her no-good ex, Jimmy (Robert Carlyle). Jimmy has been cooling his heels in Glasgow, carrying out low-impact crimes, such as strong-arming birthday clowns. After he double-crosses his crew of Scots thugs, Jimmy decides to head south to reclaim his ex. When Jimmy arrives, Dek gives up without much of a struggle. Jimmy's daughter, Marlene (Finn Atkins), who considers Dek her dad, has to talk him into fighting to win his woman back.

The director of this comedy/drama--a pleasurable film that leaves little lasting impression--is Shane Meadows, who would seem to be the official filmmaker of this midsize English city of Nottingham. My clearest memory of a previous Meadows movie, 24/7, about a boxing promoter with a drinking problem, is a scene of some defeated souls wandering through a beer-can-littered scrub, badly polluted by local partiers. Only later do you realize, oh, that's what Sherwood Forest really looks like. This movie is easily stolen by Henderson, who hasn't had a movie all to herself yet. Some men, and doubtlessly some women, prefer little, dark and furtive over big, blonde and buxom every time. Oddly, it's rock stars who are more commonly found in Henderson's size: Exene Cervenka, Björk, Siouxie Sioux (whom Henderson ought to play some day). With her silky voice and unreadable black eyes, Henderson has highlighted such pictures as Topsy-Turvy and 24 Hour Party People. Just as Ifans shows us the good side of dull, Henderson's intensity shows how boring ordinary beauty can be.

Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (R), directed by Shane Meadows, written by Meadows and Paul Fraser, photographed by Brian Tufano and starring Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans, opens Friday at the Los Gatos Cinema.

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From the September 11-17, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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