Middletown Reviews

RTE Television - The Afternoon Show review of Middletown (2006)



Michael Doherty's Mad About Movies

Matthew MacFadyen, Eva Birthistle
Director Brian Kirk
Plot A zealous minister returns home with a mission to clean up his own parish.
Michaels Verdict Traditionally, a tale about religious oppression set in a rural Northern Irish milieu would have one reaching for the service revolver. Too often in the past, this particular genre has been the graveyard of good sense and a haven of bad art. Thankfully, Kirk and his team are too skilled as filmmakers to fall into that trap, with the result that Middletown is one of the finest films to emerge from Ireland in many years.

Beautifully shot in a gothic style by Seamus McGarvey, Middletown is the story of a zealous minister (Matthew Macfadyen), who returns from the missions to take over the pastoral reins of his home village from easygoing Mick Lally, much to the delight of his father, Gerard McSorley, and his brother, Daniel Mays. Soon, however, they realise that the new man is now on a mission to stamp out all the perceived vice in the region, even if it means turning his family and friends against him. Well-written by Daragh Carville, Middletown is a superbly acted and beautifully shot drama. Indeed, feature film debutant, Kirk, frames and lights every shot with skill and precision redolent of the great Terence Davies. Watch out for this guy.

Middletown: review (Culture Northern Ireland) (2006)

Review: Middletown

Brian Kirk's feature is a timely comment on fundamentalism, finds Francis Jones

Ostensibly the story of a small Ulster town and of two brothers separated at childhood, Middletown, the debut feature from director Brian Kirk, provides an astute commentary on fundamentalism.

The none-more-devout Father Gabriel Hunter (Matthew Macfayden) returns to his hometown as parish priest, and is appalled to find himself in the midst of what he perceives as a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah. The old town has lost its way, given over to cock-fighting, liquor and licentiousness. He sees it as his God-given duty to return the townsfolk to the path of righteousness.

He begins his mission with his brother Jim (Daniel Mays), a cross-border trader whose vices of drinking and gambling Gabriel castigates as abhorrent to the good Christian life. Soon he has moved on to his heavily pregnant sister-in-law, the atheist Caroline (Eva Birthistle). However, she refuses to kowtow to his sermonising, will not go to church, and in the process fuels a fierce fraternal rivalry.

We watch as Father Gabriel chastises the townspeople, delivering his fire and brimstone speeches, winning them over with his charming religiosity, or scaring them into submission with his rhetoric and threats of eternal damnation. However, as the story unfurls we discover that the maniacal Gabriel may be a few Hail Marys short of the full Rosary.

Playing Father Gabriel, Macfayden is unrecognisable from his 2005 role in Pride and Prejudice. Here he delivers a scenery-chewing tour-de-force, his priest hell-bent on delivering the townsfolk unto heaven, recalling Robert Mitchum’s wayward preacher in The Night Of The Hunter.

Mays provides staunch support as the altogether more human Jim, whilst Birthistle conveys a sense of dignified defiance. The cinematography is superb, stark camerawork and a palette of sombre greys and muddy browns combine to artfully evoke the rural Ulster locale. Incidentally, if director Kirk is to be believed, the titular ‘Middletown’ does not refer to the Co Armagh town of the same name.

When this story takes place is not altogether clear. The script, written by Daragh Carville, alludes to a time when the Church had, what the film suggests, was an unhealthy precedence in Irish life, presumably the 1950s or 60s. As such it is a subject which has been dealt with time and again, but rarely with such élan.

The narrative, although prone to the odd lapse into stereotype, canters along briskly, and as an allegory for religious fundamentalism, be it Islamic, that found in the Deep South or Ulster’s own Bible belt, Middletown’s message could not be more timely.


Middletown Dwyer Review (Nov 2006)

Gimme that old time religion

Michael Dwyer ****

Irish Times 3/11/06

Reviewed - Middletown:

BRIAN Kirk's striking first feature film presents an unprepossessing picture of life in a small Northern Ireland town at an unspecified time, although the period trappings suggest the late 1950s or early 1960s.Gerard McSorley plays Bill Hunter, who runs the local garage with his younger son, Jim (Daniel Mays). Daily life seems mundane there until the return of Jim's clergyman brother, Gabriel (Matthew Macfadyen), from missionary work in Africa to take over the parish that is his hometown.

A prologue of juvenile malevolence set 15 years earlier establishes the violent undercurrents that will surface so devastatingly when Gabriel takes it on himself to rid the town of what he regards as vice and depravity. We get the measure of him when he finds a mouse in a trap and grinds his shoe into the animal's body.

In a creepily ominous scene, Gabriel meets his brother's pregnant wife (Eva Birthistle) and feels her stomach, letting his hand linger there.The minister's congregation has no idea of quite how serious he is when, in his first sermon, he says, "I'm going to be hard on you, and hard on myself." Spouting fire and brimstone, Gabriel is the personification of fundamentalism, and through him the incisive screenplay by Darragh Carville implicitly anticipates the intolerance that will boil over in this part of Ireland in years to come.

The scariest aspect of Gabriel is that he absolutely believes that everything he does is right, that it is part of his divine mission on earth, and in that respect the film taps into the universality of conflicts rooted in religious zealotry.

Director Kirk applies an appropriate, darkly muted colour scheme to this grimly bleak environment, establishing an eerie, pressure-cooker atmosphere that recalls Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.Last seen as Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, Macfadyen immerses himself in the role of Gabriel with a chilling conviction. The uniformly fine performances notably include Birthistle's feisty portrayal of the only person with the temerity to stand up to his character in this calculatedly unsettling psychodrama.


RTE.ie Entertainment Middletown Review : "Terminator with a Collar" ( Nov 2006)

Eva Birthistle
An unusual film
2 November 2006
Middletown 2 star 15A

Director: Brian Kirk
Starring: Matthew Macfadyen, Daniel Mays, Eva Birthistle and Gerard McSorley.
Duration: 89 minutes

The idea of an Irish western sounds a bit odd but think about it a little and there have been a number of films which have used elements of the horse opera - 'I Went Down', 'Into the West' and 'Mickybo and Me', to name three. 'Middletown', too, can join that list, and is by far the most unusual of the lot.

Returning home from the missions to the one-horse Middletown, Preacher Gabriel (Macfadyen) isn't looking at his new posting as an easy life and a chance to reconnect with his ailing father Bill (McSorley) and hustler brother Jim (Mays). Instead, he thinks the locals and his family have all travelled some distance down the path of the damned and need to be saved from themselves and each other.

The welcome home meal is barely over before Gabriel launches into his crusade - terrorising his flock for having a drink on Sunday, amplifying the fear of death and need to make amends in his own father, driving an even greater wedge between himself and Jim and deciding that Jim's pregnant barmaid wife Caroline (Birthistle) is the greatest sinner of them all. It's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

Award-winning director McKirk and playwright Daragh McCarville do many things right here, in particular capturing the suffocating nature of small town life on the island of Ireland in the 1950/60s - seen here from a non-Catholic perspective. The acting is strong and the film's look is superb, but 'Middletown' is a film which would have had greater impact if it didn't try to be so powerful all the time.

The biggest problem with the film is the character of Gabriel. As both villain and victim of the story he needed to be made human; instead he often comes across as The Terminator with a collar. Macfadyen is chilling in the role but he should have been given more to work with because with a few chinks in the armour Gabriel would have been more compelling. We also never learn why Gabriel is so unhinged and while some would argue as to whether that's really necessary, for others it further strengthens the belief of a complex character reduced towards the one dimensional.

Kirk and McCarville also needed to rethink the film's closing stages. Here subtlety and things left unsaid would have worked best but instead the duo opt for a big ending and the thriller conventions they employ are far from convincing. In their bid to ramp up the tension, 'Middletown' becomes less not more interesting and the final standoff feels like it belongs in a different film - one with less going for it than this one.

A thought-provoking work, but far from the must see it had the potential to be.

Harry Guerin

Belfast Telegraph Another Middletown Review (Nov 2006)

No better than fair to Middling
Middletown tries hard but, as Noel McAdam finds out, is as downbeat and dreary as the grey steeples of Ulster

Syndicate content