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.