Smalltime/Where's the Money Ronnie! Review
If a filmmaker has particular talent, you can almost always spot it in their earliest efforts, however impoverished the circumstances in which they were made. Shane Meadows began by making short films on a camcorder with his friends from 1994 onwards – his Wikipedia entry has a list of them. He seemed to have learned quickly, because his first “feature”, the hour-long Smalltime was made two years later. Its budget limitations are obvious, but in many ways it's a very accomplished piece of work. It was given a cinema release in 1997, partnered by Meadows's earlier twelve-minute short Where's the Money Ronnie!.
Shot on video in black and white, Where's the Money Ronnie! gives us four different accounts of a robbery, a street fight and two shootings. Four participants are interviewed by the police, with scenes from the crime, which are silent, backed by a music score. The final one is Ronnie himself, played by Meadows. The viewer is asked to piece together what really happened, Rashomon style, given the evasions and half-truths of the interviewees. The punctuation of the title is sic, as are a couple of punctuation (“it's” for “its”) and spelling errors (“coreographer”) in the end credits. There were three earlier versions of Where's the Money Ronnie! made before this final version.
Smalltime (which is one word on screen, though many sources – including the cover of this DVD – render it as two) begins with a black screen and Meadow's voice: “there's one thing you gotta understand, right. This ain't fucking London. This ain't even Nottingham, man. This is Sneinton. And all that matters in Sneinton is having a tenner in your pocket. You know what I mean? I don't matter how you get it.” Meadows – with a full head of hair - plays Jumbo, the head of a gang of petty criminals, his comrades being Malc (Mat Hand), Willy (Jimmy Hynd) and Bets (Leon Lamond). The story is loosely wound, and more concerned with character interaction than an actual plot. It's often very funny, at other times poignant. It doesn't whitewash its characters either: Jumbo's abuse of his wife Ruby (Gena Kawecka) is a major contention between Malc and his wife Kate (Dena Stables).
Smalltime clearly has autobiographical roots: Meadows lived in Sneinton (a suburb of Nottingham) in his early twenties and had some experience of petty crime. His affection for his characters and his ear for highly profane dialogue – the very strong language earns the film its 18 certificate – is strongly evident. Though still shot on video, in colour this time, on a tiny budget (£5000), Smalltime is a big advance for Meadows. Energetic handheld camerawork alternates with still, wide shots. A late interlude with Malc, Kate and their child on holiday in a rainswept and all but deserted Skegness strikes a melancholyic note amongst the laughs. Smalltime is a work of clear talent and confidence. It was followed in 1997 by Meadows's first full-length feature Twenty Four Seven.
Smalltime and Where's the Money Ronnie! are released by the BFI on a single-layered DVD encoded for all regions.
As a note on the back cover says, both films were shot on analogue video, presumably with a native aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Both films are presented in 1.85:1 and are anamorphically enhanced. This does seem to be correct, though the handheld camerawork does result in some cropped shot compositions. Both films are a little soft, Where's the Money Ronnie! especially, and the line structure of the latter is frequently visible. Smalltime is vividly colourful, and looks very good considering its source material.
Both films have mono soundtracks, but both are clear and well balanced, and the music (by Gavin Clarke and the Big Arty Band) comes over very well. If the regional accents are too much, there are English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing available.
This is a very much barebones BFI release, and the first one I've seen for some while which does not include a booklet. Instead there are credits for Smalltimee on the inside of the sleeve (visible through the transparent case) and notes on both films by Jonny Bugg, derived from Screenonline.