Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Small Time (1996) - Shane Meadows

From little acorns…

After years of knocking together short films, Shane Meadows secured enough funding to make the huge leap into feature film territory with Small Time. As debuts go it’s not the strongest I’ve ever seen, but with hindsight it’s easy to pick out more than enough of Meadows’ tropes to make this well worth a look. What little story there is revolves around a group of ne'er-do-wells in a suburb of Nottingham, who basically steal, drink and smoke themselves through life. Meadows plays Jumbo, the gang’s leader and hard man. Once you get used to the comedy wig (which must have helped massively with continuity) you'll find that he’s not too bad as an actor. His next door neighbour and fellow gang member is Malc (Mat Hand), who’s under pressure from his girlfriend Kate (Dena Smiles) to ditch Jumbo and move on with his life.

For the most part it all works well, the acting is a bit all over the place at times but the dialogue has a crackle to it that makes up for any actorly shortcomings. With a budget of just £5,000, it’s not that surprising to find that it’s not the most beautiful film you’ll ever see either. However Meadows works at his best when on a tight budget, and manages to turn this to his advantage. It’s all location, no sets, and hand held rather than dolly shots, all of which inject some life into the film. Just look at the scene towards the end of two robbers running away from a botched heist. It's lifted wholesale from Reservoir Dogs, a film that seems to have had a hold on Meadow's around this time - his short Where's The Money, Ronnie? being hugely influenced by it too. It's the most exciting scene in the film and has a real kinetic energy to it. As does the hilarious car boot sale montage, where our heroes distract stall owners just long enough to swipe anything they can get their mitts on.

Small Time’s biggest flaw is the balance between it's comedy and violence. Jumbo knocks his girlfriend Ruby (Gena Kawecka) about, but this is never really addressed as much as just accepted. There’s a running gag about Ruby using a vibrator that falls a bit flat, but it’s after one of these scenes that Jumbo lays into her. Meadows doesn’t give the audience time to adjust to the sudden switch in tone, and it becomes a bit of a mess. Within three years though he would nail this particular idea with A Room for Romeo Brass, which successfully managed to shift from comedy to domestic horror without any warning to great effect.

The core idea running through Small Time is the influence that violent people can have over others. It’s a theme that runs through most of Shane Meadows’ filmography. It’s there in A Room for Romeo Brass, Dead Man’s Shoes and more recently This is England. Another constant in his work is Gavin Clarke’s music which is all present and correct here. Pretty much all of the above crop up again and again in Meadows’ work, the Nottingham setting, the working class characters, the music, the humour, the hand held camera work - it’s all there in abundance in every film he makes. Over the years he has refined all this and managed to make it his own thing. Almost twenty years later Shane Meadows has become the closest thing we have as a successor to Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. Now who would have thought that when watching this all those years ago?

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