Brian Kirk's film 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 Macfadyen) 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, Macfadyen 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.