Shane Meadows is a bit of a time-bomb. When will his moment come? The faithful are well aware that he’s amongst the most exciting directors in this country. His short films, of which he’s made a stack, are often terrific. His first feature, TwentyFourSeven (1997), tried a bit too hard to impress, and made little impact, whereas the low-key follow-up, A Room For Romeo Brass (1999), is possibly the best British film of its era. Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) was designed to broaden his appeal in an accessible, mainstream direction, but missed much of the true Meadows charm.
Here, he’s collaborating with his pal, Romeo Brass star Considine, who co-wrote the script, and the independent Warp Records label, who are hereby branching into features. Meadows has been up-front about making amends for Midlands, a film he felt got beyond his control. As a result – shooting at break-neck speed on a tiny budget – Meadows has successfully revived the spirit of his shorts, and made his best film since Romeo Brass. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other British director who’s made a better film in the meantime.
The plot’s almost a movie cliché: the grim-faced Richard returns from a stint in the Army to take revenge on the ‘bad crowd’ his younger brother Anthony has fallen in with. It’s centred on brooding atmosphere rather than sudden action. Exactly what this ‘bad crowd’ is guilty of isn’t clear until towards the end. It’s a neat trick, turning a classic revenge plot into something altogether more reflective than you’d expect. Meadows seems to revel in the rawness of the enterprise, shaking off the slickness and star cast of Midlands with a host of unknowns discovered at acting workshops. And there’s no underestimating his ability to spot and nurture talent: after all, this is the man who first gave the world Paddy Considine. This time out, newcomer Toby Kebbell makes his mark as Richard’s troubled brother Anthony.
Considine himself, it should go without saying, is exemplary. The fact that, in other roles, he so often conjures up empathetic, humorous characters works all the better here, once the viewer’s got used to the bleakness. His Richard is entirely credible, sudden acts of pitiless violence and all. When Meadows refers to Considine as Robert DeNiro to his Scorsese, he’s only half-joking. They’re most definitely a partnership to watch.
What makes this so special are the elements you’re not expecting at all, the ones too many British filmmakers fall short of: the nimble switching from terror to laughter; the deeply surreal flourishes; and the quite spectacular cinematography shot in Matlock for peanuts. In amongst the brutality and rough edges, there’s a tender heart at work. The use of a hand-picked soundtrack and ‘period’ flashback footage is immensely effective, and the emotional after-effects on the viewer of the whole piece are uncommonly powerful.
It’s a film that stays with you. Meadows has a terrific knack for taking well-worn movie scenarios, uprooting them from Hollywood, and transposing them into his own back-yard. In many ways TwentyFourSeven was a Uttoxeter cousin of Rocky (1976) or The Karate Kid (1984), whereas Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, as the title suggests, played out classic Western situations in modern day Britain. Dead Man’s Shoes obviously has one eye on bygone revenge movies of the likes of Death Wish (1974) and Point Blank (1967), but again, goes about it in the uniquely Shane Meadows setting. It’s a bravura technique, infinitely more gutsy than the bulk of his contemporaries on these shores.
Perhaps in some ways, despite all this, it remains a low-fi assemblage of terrific elements rather than an entirely satisfying, original whole, but that’s almost nip-picking. It’s a fascinating work by a potentially tremendous filmmaker. Meadows’ best, it seems certain, is still yet to come.