Directed by Shane Meadows Written by Shane Meadows and Paul Fraser Starring Andrew Shim, Ben Marshall, Paddy Considine Classification: AA Rating: **½
S et in a grinding town in the English Midlands, among families shoe-horned into identical rowhouses, Shane Meadows's first feature, TwentyFourSeven, was full of promise yet ultimately flawed. Set in a grinding town in the English Midlands, among families shoe-horned into identical rowhouses, Shane Meadows's second feature, A Room for Romeo Brass, is . . . you guessed it . . . more promise, more flaws. At some point, every director must stand up and deliver, and Meadows hasn't yet. He's got potential, but it's still waiting to be realized.
This time the focus is nominally confined to two lads in their early teens. Gavin (Ben Marshall) is a pale little fellow with a limp; Romeo (Andrew Shim) is a chubby boy with an appetite. They're next-door neighbours and fast friends in the mutually taunting way of most young males. But that delicate balance is upset with the appearance of twentysomething Morell (Paddy Considine). Driving them about in his battered Austin Mini, he earns the kids' respect by treating them as equals. For him, however, that's not much of a stretch. It's immediately apparent that Morell is himself more child than man -- perhaps slow-witted, or maybe just naive, but clearly a very odd duck.
What remains uncertain is the true nature of Morell's character: Is he harmlessly childlike or dangerously childish, a lonely and misunderstood soul or a wacko waiting to explode? This gives the script its long fuse of suspense, and Considine does a fine job striking the match. He plays the role with a toothy grin and a jerky manner, veering wildly from the scary to the pathetic and back again, never quite allowing the audience to get a firm fix on him. We're definitely made nervous by the guy, but the film is adroit at making us question our attitude, wondering whether to blame Morell for his abnormal behaviour or ourselves for our ingrained prejudice.
Romeo's attractive older sister, Ladine, is our surrogate here. Morell puzzles her too. Torn between pity and revulsion, she half-encourages his ardent but awkward advances, attracted by his apparent sincerity and troubled by his scary tenacity. Romeo has no such doubts. Estranged from his actual father, he succumbs to the stranger's spell. Meanwhile, Gavin has fallen out of their orbit and into a hospital bed for an operation to correct his limp.
If that sounds busy, it is. Meadows, and his writing partner Paul Fraser, keep insisting on adding in subplots that they don't have the time to properly explore. Consequently, the picture has a truncated feel, growing distinctly weaker whenever it strays from the central drama of Morell, and the anomaly he poses. But even there, that long fuse of suspense eventually fizzles in the end, leaving us frustrated. It's as if the movie set out to tell a coming-of-age tale about the two boys, then stumbled en route upon a much richer and more ambiguous figure, only to abandon him.
Nevertheless, flaws and all, Meadows remains a director to watch. With his ear for credible dialogue and eye for local detail, he's proudly working in the kitchen-sink tradition of Tony Richardson and Mike Leigh. Not for him, not yet, the recent wave of British sentimentality -- the sappy trend that uses the disenfranchised as the raw material for upbeat comedy. Meadows may not have made good on his promise, but at least he hasn't gone the full monty and sold it out.