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.

Mr Darcy of Pemberley Updated!

Mr Darcy of Pemberley is a diary illustrated and written by two of Pemberworths members, Parryphrase and Pinkyandrexa. It has recorded the thoughts of young Mr. Darcy, his life at home at Pemberley, his activities at school and the ailing health of his mother.


This diary continues to be updated periodically. It is well worth a visit.

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: ***

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: Matthew Interview (Nov 2006)

Acting Holy

Although hesitant when discussing acting, his style, or his starring role in Brian Kirk's Middletown, Matthew Macfayden still has a lot to say to Sheena Sweeney.

The first thing that springs to mind before meeting Matthew Macfadyen is what a good actor he is.

His breakout role came when he played Agent Tom Quinn in the TV series Spooks, and later when New Zealander Brad McGann cast him as a weary war photographer alienated from his family in In My Father's Den.

Macfayden gave a further sample of his considerable depth and range before he was introduced to the world in Pride & Prejudice last year.

And now, in grand over-the-top style, he is playing the role of Gabriel, a fundamentalist Northern Irish cleric preaching fire and brimstone, in Brian Kirk's debut feature Middletown.

The most striking thing about Macfayden in person is how different he looks from his screen self. He seems much larger in a lumbering kind of way, with floppy hair and a reddish hue to his nose. He has the accent of a public schoolboy and the charming manner of an Evelyn Waugh character, slightly bewildered by it all.

Syndicate content