The Western as a film genre has become so portable that filmmakers now have the temptation to set Westerns anywhere. To that end, director (and co-writer with Paul Fraser) Shane Meadows revisits Sergio Leone's 1969 spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, in a town so squarely in the middle of England that it's identified by its very lack of specific location -- in the Midlands.
Like Leone's film, Meadows' tale involves a brutish outsider, Jimmy (Robert Carlyle), who comes to town to stir up trouble, specifically with his estranged girlfriend Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and their 12-year-old daughter Marlene (Finn Atkins), thereby awakening a reluctant protector in Dek (Rhys Ifans), Shirley's kind but dull boyfriend. Circling the wagons around Shirley are her neighbors Carol (Kathy Burke) and Charlie (Ricky Tomlinson), and their brood of assorted children.
The send-up works in places: The West's sweeping vistas have been replaced here by wide shots that show cul-de-sacs of rowhouses; Charlie's battered '70s American station wagon with genuine artificial wood-grain vinyl paneling stands in for any noble steed (though its sole purpose is ferrying children to and from school); and the Ennio Morricone-like music by John Lunn accompanying Dek easily reminds us what a hapless "hero" he is.
And there's something amusing about the utter blandness of the working-class English lifestyle, with its small domestic troubles depicted here compared to the topographic grandeur and pioneering of the West invoked in the title. Ironically, what makes this particular town so dull is its utter lack of local character and its appropriation of Americanisms like track suits as day wear, and pubs with big Budweiser signs.
But Meadows treats this conceit as a half-joke, and that contributes to the film's unevenness as it shifts gears between parody, goofy comedy, domestic melodrama and romance. The allusion lacks consistency, and especially as the film grows more serious in its final third, the occasional Westernism (like staging a confrontation between Jimmy and Dek as a Main Street showdown) becomes distracting.
As a domestic comedy/melodrama, portions of Midlands play well. Dek's relationship with the young Marlene is refreshingly free of kiddie-cute, and it's this bond that is most threatened by the return of Jimmy. Meadows has also assembled a good crew of actors, though too often the script gives them little to do: Carlyle's Jimmy is largely one unpleasant note, Kathy Burke is underused, and Tomlinson's country-and-western-obsessed shaggy dad is the start of a good joke that ultimately goes nowhere. One suspects that had Meadows chosen either Western send-up or kitchen-sink drama with a few laughs, the singular focus would have made for a stronger film.