Middletown Reviews

Middletown: Anchorage Film Festival review (Dec 2006)

Two brothers clash over views in Irish 'Middletown'


In James Joyce's memorable phrase (from his autobiographical novel "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"), the Irish are essentially a "priest-ridden race."

A kindred sentiment seems to emerge in "Middletown," an Anchorage International Film Festival feature that screens for its final time tonight at Fireweed Theatre.

But instead of taking the Catholic Church to task -- as Joyce's fictional father did in "Portrait" -- director Brian Kirk shines his spotlight on the lot of poor Protestants in Northern Ireland.

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Directed By: Brian Kirk

Cast: Matthew Macfayden, Daniel Mays, Eva Birthistle, Gerard McSorley

Reviewed By: Victoria Lock

Banana rating:


The opening scenes of Middletown waste no time in appealing directly to sympathetic emotions, by revealing two younger brothers – one of them sorely mistreated by a demanding and unfair father (McSorley), while the other is praised for his intelligence and declared to have ‘the gift’ required of a man who lives his life serving God.

The simple framing and raw images of a rural Protestant church in a tiny Northern Irish town introduce a complex and dark story. Fifteen years later, Gabriel Hunter (Matthew Macfayden) is due to arrive back in his hometown to replace the now elderly Reverend, after spending most of his life “doing God’s work” abroad. His brother Jim (Daniel Mays), who now works for the family business, is struggling with poverty, trying to support a pregnant wife, and struggles still more for his father’s approval.

Middletown:review by Phil Crossey (2006)

Chilling example of how religion and violence clash


MIDDLETOWN, a new Northern Irish film that is effectively a showcase for local talent, makes uncomfortable viewing at times.

Not necessarily in a bad way, it is a compelling drama with plenty of deft touches, but this is an unflinching look at our society.

Set in the 1960s, it doesn't use the Troubles as a narrative device, moreover it shows mindsets and the seething-sense of anger and alienation that would lead to conflict.

But this is a chilling drama about violence and religion, and how both can destroy lives.

The film begins with Gabriel Hunter as a young boy being told that he is to be sent to the seminary.

The scene, deliberately, has the feel of a courtroom sentencing.

Outside, his younger brother Jim gets into a fight.

Years later, having trained as a minister and returned to his home town, Gabriel (Matthew Macfadyen) is determined to restore order in the midst of what he sees as sin.

With gambling and drinking rife, Gabriel goes about trying to bring Middle town back to God, a quest that puts him on a collision course with his own family. Jim (Daniel Mays) is now married to pub landlady Caroline (Eva Birthistle) and they are expecting a child.

He work in the failing family business with the head of the family, BillHunter (Gerard McSorley).

With the bar opening on Sundays, and the business selling illegal diesel, Gabriel's mission to clean up the town begins with those closest to him.

All of this happens against a permanently cold, damp backdrop and the muddy streets of the town itself provide such a tactile and effective background that Middletown itself is almost the film's main character.

Middletown is a very literal work, which isloaded with imagery. It follows in the tradition of great dramas where lack of communication and empathy create the tension.

Everyone from Northern Ireland will recognise the setting and the characters, who are wining to criticise their neighbour before they see their own faults.

The characters look for salvation in all the wrong places and the lack of forgiveness leads to an explosive conclusion.

On the face of it, this neo-western-cum-family drama is an examination of the effect of religion on people's lives.

But there are also strong overtones of how fundamentalism, and the lack of empathy it brings, canbeanincredibly destructive force.

While the story deals with Protestantism, and Middletown is very close to the Gaelic name for Ballymena, there is enough ambiguity not to identify any single faith and the message is universal.

This is a lavish film that is beautifully shot and bubbles with simmering tension all the way through. The plot may jar at times, and lurch toward unbelievably at the end, but this is a parable as much as a narrative story.

The performances are outstanding from a recognisable cast, who capture perfectly the traits of hiding behind themselves, or behind a twisted set of values.

It is by no means an easy work, but it sums up the Northern Ireland condition better than any big screen effort and for that it deserves to be seen.

Rating: - 4 stars out of 5

Middletown: John Maguires Movie Review (2006)

Repent in Dust and Ashes

by John Maguire

There is a lot to admire in Brian Kirk’s gloomy Northern Irish gothic Middletown, the story of a squat, fogbound village, marooned in what might be the 1960s, visited by an avenging angel. Fifteen years before, young Gabriel Hunter (Tyrone McKenna) is told he has been called by God for a higher purpose in life. After a spell on the African Missions, Gabriel, now played by Matthew MacFadyen, comes back to Middletown to take over the local church, with his father Bill (Gerard McSorley), brother Jim (Daniel Mays) and his wife Caroline (Eva Birthistle) waiting at a dinner in his honour.

It doesn’t take long for the zealous young minister – the film doesn’t specify a denomination - to discover that things in town have changed in his absence. The people have neglected the church and taken to drinking, gambling and cockfighting, mostly in the local pub, run by the heavily-pregnant, turquoise mini-skirted Caroline. With a name derived from the archangel of God and a nod to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Gabriel wastes no time in explaining to his congregation that they are hypocrites and sinners who must change their ways or face damnation. Bible-thumper or not, he’s right. Middletown is a nasty place, sharp-tongued and violent, peopled with sleeveens and ignoramuses that, for the most part, deserve what’s coming to them.

Director Kirk builds an atmosphere of steeply arched gothic, angling his camera from the rafters of the pokey church or shadowed under the low lintel of the pub door. There is an insistent sense of physical discomfort throughout the film; from the mildewed, cramped interiors to the itch of the wet woollen costumes and the straight backs demanded by hard wooden pews. There is no succour for the infirm either; corrective eye-patches, crutches and unchecked aches and twinges go to remind the parishioners that their deliverance will not come from science.

Daragh Carville’s screenplay begins as a drama about the chasm that exists between the ideals of a fundamentalist church and the reality of life as people live it, but ultimately wanders back to more familiar genre territory. Without some element of a personal history or any sense of humanity (even a simple mark like the ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ etched on Robert Mitchum’s lumpy knuckles), Gabriel’s mission loses its spiritual dimension and becomes a procedural psychotic rampage. There are hints at a greater darkness, like a scene where the minister furiously scrubs his bare chest with wire-wool, but this territory isn’t explored in detail. There’s no mistaking Macfadyen’s blank-eyed conviction, whatever its source, but in the clunky melodramas that follow, he is a one-dimensional zealot, a stiff, lifeless cipher.

Better is Daniel Mays performance as the craven second-born son Jim, who can’t afford to get his house built and is smuggling diesel for spare cash. A graduate of the reflexive, freewheeling films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Mays has a mobile face, quick and expressive. Eva Birthistle gives another rich performance as the independent, quick-to-anger Caroline, a woman who fights for her rights to make her own decisions but allows the men of the village to hold weekly cockfights in her cellar to sell more beer. Of the rest of the cast, Richard Dormer as Skinner, a grotesque butcher and Sorcha Cusack as Caroline’s protective mother give sturdy support. A mournful Mick Lally as the retiring former minister drops out understandably early but Bronagh Gallagher is lost in the background of a handful of crowd scenes, an oddly silent, anonymous presence.

The Post.IE Reviews Middletown (Nov 2006)

Reviewed This Week: Middletown

05 November 2006

Reviewed by Helen Boylan
Cinema: Middletown, directed by Brian Kirk, at cinemas nationwide, cert 15A.

The titular setting of this bleak but affecting film is a dreary, colourless everytown.

While there is a Middletown in director Brian Kirk’s home county of Armagh, the film is named after the hundreds of Middletowns around the world.

Drawing on biblical parables such as The Prodigal Son and Cain and Abel, Middletown also follows a timeless, universal story of good versus evil.

Producer Michael Casey and filmmaker Kirk, who wrote the screenplay with playwright Daragh Carville, wanted a village setting that was forgotten by time and progress.

However, for Irish audiences at least, Middletown comes across as a film about religious oppression in the North in the 1960s. Unmistakable Irishisms abound: Mick Lally, Gerard McSorley and Bronagh Gallagher are among the cast; characters speak with strong Northern brogues and down pints of Guinness. Rural misery is rife; the village priest plays an omnipotent role within the small community and the ubiquitous winceyette bed linen that covered Irish beds from the 1960s through to the 1980s adorn the beds here.

One of the central protagonists, Gabriel (played by Matthew MacFadyen), is a reverend whose tested relationships with his God and his family form the fulcrum for the film’s central theme: the fundamentalist perception of morality and the sin.

But on closer inspection however, no specific mention is made of his or any character’s denomination. The effects of fundamentalism are shown through the different view points of the film’s four protagonists - the Christian preacher, his brother Jim (Daniel Mays), their father (McSorley) and Jim’s wife (Eva Birthistle), each of which are performed with assuredness.

As a young boy, Gabriel is singled out for his intelligence and diligence and told he has a destiny to fulfil within the church. The young lad leaves Middletown to spend a decade or so studying to become a reverend.

Separated from his father and his feisty younger brother Jim in order to pursue an academic life of denial and abstinence, Gabriel grows up utterly devoted to the teachings of the Bible.

When he returns to his home town to find his brother married to the town publican’s expectant daughter, his father’s greasy hands still in the till and a bunch of locals who drink on a Sunday and bet on backroom cock fights, he vows to whip the wayward flock of sinners into shape.

Emotionally repressed and ill-equipped to deal with the ups and downs of human relationships, Gabriel’s godly intentions turn malign, marred as they are by his damning sermons and troubled, jealous heart. What he sees as a heaven-sent mission to save his parishioners from eternal damnation, others see as a mad, destructive crusade from which no good can come.

With a handful of strong performances and an unusually balanced portrayal of a fundamentalist ideals and their effects, Middletown is well worth watching.

Rating: ***
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