Reviewing a promising new work from a promising new filmmaker can be unexpectedly uncomfortable. There are all manner of anxieties: it often feels as if each piece of praise needs to be qualified with some mention of what could be achieved if the talent under discussion develops as one hopes it will.
Simultaneously, each criticism is accentuated by the concern that the highlighted failing will extend into future work. The review ends up being not a review of the film in front of us, but of films that may come, or fail, to be. There is, however, a particular pleasure in returning to (or discovering) the early work of an artist when one knows that the potential evident in it has already been realised.
Subsequently, it’s an ideal time to consider Shane Meadows’s debut feature, Small Time (and Where’s The Money Ronnie!, the early short paired with it, here), because we can do so without hope, or fear, for his later work. We know that — in masterly films like Dead Man’s Shoes and This Is England — the absurd black comedy became characteristic; the unmistakable Englishness grew to incorporate comment on Britain itself; the perpetual threat of violence that crackles under every scene was extended into stories that incorporated true tragedy; and that the characters grew deeper and fuller, darker and funnier. As such, we are free to luxuriate in a fine early movie, without fretting that the potential it demonstrates will go unrealised.
Meadows plays ‘Jumbo’, an inept and ultra-small time crook whom, if his gossiping girlfriend — Gene Kawecka’s Ruby — is to be believed, merits that nickname in the same way Little John merits his. With Jumbo unable to satisfy her sexually (‘There’s little things you don’t do… that a woman appreciates,’ she tells him. ‘Like having a bath [or] cleaning your teeth’), Ruby begins what is essentially a furtive affair — with a vibrator.
It is a sustained subplot that’s illustrative of the film:it’s ostensibly saucy, funny and inconsequential but contains seeds of the unsettling. If Jumbo discovers her, we know, there will be violence. (The couple frequently give each other ‘kickings’.)
One of Meadows’ finest talents, as a screenwriter, a director and even as an actor, is to present worlds that are both comically stylised and yet harshly realistic. Often in comedy we allow ourselves to laugh because the characters presented to us are kindhearted, childlike and sanitized (or else, in the case of gangster films for example, sufficiently glamorous to override their un-palatability).
Here, it is demonstrated, a funny thing may be done, and a laugh elicited by, an appalling, irredeemable and unsexy character who is quick to violence and slow to self-knowledge. In Small Time, as in much of the work of Shane Meadows, we frequently want to laugh but feel we shouldn’t — which is, of course, so often the situation in life.
The thrust of the film, if a film so thinly plotted can be thought to have a thrust, concerns Jumbo’s best friend and ‘business partner’, Malc (Mat Hand) and the efforts he and his girlfriend (Dena Smiles’s Kate) make to escape the rancid quagmire of their lives.This isn’t the story of a good man struggling to free himself from bad circumstances, though, and there’s no inspiration to be taken from it. Malc has no talent he needs just one opportunity to demonstrate, and no attractiveness of character that makes us want him to succeed: he is simply slightly more tolerable than the sub-mental losers with whom he hangs around.
Indeed, this isn’t really a story at all. Meadows knows that life generally has no plot, and he doesn’t attempt to squeeze his observational material into one. The ‘story’ that emerges — the gang members attempt to rob a New Age establishment with weapons including toy guns and a rolled up newspaper — appears not because Meadows feels his character’s lives need narrative drive, but because they do. Their actions throughout the film are simply an effort to persuade themselves they are alive, so ‘small time’ are they, both as criminals and people.
The plans for the robbery are just the most obvious manifestation of this desire to announce their existence. The scheme gives them an opportunity to sit and talk of how they will spend the money they will steal; of how their lives will be different once this final heist is pulled off; of the future they can create because of it. That, once events are afoot, Meadow resolves the action so quickly, and in such contrast to the slow-developing character-centric scenes that have preceded it, underlines his lack of concern with his ‘story’.
Where’s The Money Ronnie!, a ultra-low budget, 12-minute black and white short, is inspired by Rashomon. A robbery and double murder has taken place on a Midlands street and, while being interviewed by the police, four of those involved relate their version of what occurred.
The film is interesting not for its content or style, but because of the presence of Meadows, who plays the titular money-lender. He leers into the camera, artless but smug, bristling with energy and ideas. Where’s The Money Ronnie! is the purest expression of the overwhelming impression given by Meadows’s early work: that his is a major talent that cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Each of these films is a loud call for the attention Meadows has clearly always felt he deserves — and it’s a pleasure to watch them now, when we know he has fully received it.