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