Watching Shane Meadow’s film Once Upon A Time in the Midlands the other night two thoughts struck me. The first is that Meadow’s is probably the most talented and diverse British film-maker of recent times (Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England being two of the best recent British movies) and could I justify claiming the film for this column considering it stars not only Shirley Henderson, but also Robert Carlyle, James Cosmo and David Mackay. I decided I couldn’t do it so although it’s an interesting film, it’s not the one I’m going to talk about here. That film is American Cousins.
It was watching Shirley Henderson that reminded me about American Cousins. No one does vulnerability and suppressed emotion like Shirley, she seems to be the first actor that directors turn to when they want a tragic life shown rather than explained. Her performances can be so raw that it is sometimes difficult to watch. She has featured in some of my favourite films including Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, as Spud’s long suffering girlfriend Gail in Trainspotting, and as Tony Wilson’s first wife Lindsay in 24 Hour Party People. Even as Moaning Myrtle in the early Harry Potter films she managed to convincingly portray what it might be like to suffer eternal torment stuck in a school’s plumbing system.
While Henderson may be the most well known name involved, hers is not the standout performance; that honour goes to leading man Gerard Lepkowski. Lepkowski was born and raised in Glasgow, but has spent most of his professional career outside of Scotland, most successfully in Australia. He is little known over here,the only other film I’ve seen him in is Belfast/Glasgow based thriller Man Dancin’, but his performance in American Cousins is a revelation. Understated, gentle, showing impeccable dramatic and comedic timing, he manages to convey a man whose dreams have long since been put away as his life has progressed. In the context of the movie it’s a beautiful performance. A mention must also go to the legendary Russell Hunter, an actor who was in many seminal TV dramas in the 70s and 80s. Hunter died in 2004 and American Cousins was one of his final jobs. His role as Nonno, the patriarchal fish frier who has raised Lepkowski’s Roberto, gives the film a moral centre.
American Cousins is Comfort and Joy meets The Sopranos, and I can imagine the pitch for the film was not too far away from that summation. It pulls off this unlikely marriage pretty well, and it has surprising visual flourishes from director Don Coutts such as the ceilidh at Loch Lomond and the fight in the neighbourhood church. Coutts’ direction is a real understated feature of the film and, as with Lepkowski, it is a mystery why he has not worked more (perhaps not too much of a mystery considering the film’s lack of success). The comedy is conveyed with the lightest of touches, the violence has genuine edge and all the central relationships are believable. It is the simplest of premises; you get a fine script, gather an appropriate coterie of actors, and direct them with a style that never overshadows their performances. Think about it again, then consider how rare it is to watch a film that ticks those particular boxes.
American Cousins uses fairly broad stereotypes, particularly concerning Italian families in Scotland and America, but, while the film never quite subverts them, it positively celebrates them in manner that is never jarring. There are American mobsters, Russian gangsters, ice-cream floats, fish and chips and haggis suppers. Magnums amongst the Magnums. The language is cinematic and this film is a joy for those of us who will recognize the genres and characters that are celebrated on screen.
This is a warm and diverting film. A rom/com that doesn’t ignore the drama. Stick it on on a winter’s evening when you want to feel better about the world. There are currently quite a few TV shows who do this sort of thing well, but fewer and fewer films. American Cousins is a romantic comedy with heart and soul, and sole.