Dir: Brian Kirk. UK-Ire. 2006.90mins.
The feature debut of Northern Ireland-born TV andcommercials director Brian Kirk, Middletownis a melodramatic brew of family rivalries and religious fervour set in anisolated Irish village in the 1960s. The film is marked out by some strongacting, and its theatrical prospects will certainly be boosted by the presenceof Matthew Macfadyen in the lead role, but ultimatelythis small moodpiece will find its biggest audiencesat film festivals and then as riveting TV drama.
It has its world premiere atTribeca this week, where it could grab attention forits timely theme of religious fundamentalism and the havoc that can wreak.
Macfadyen plays a priest whose zeal in putting a stop to whathe views as immoral behaviour destroys the peace of the village. Kirk createsan effectively brooding tone to accompany the priest's path ofself-righteousness through dim lighting and gloomy weather. Unfortunately he islet down by the contrivances of the story, an inappropriately histrionic climaxand an overbearing score by Debbie Wiseman.
The prologue to the filmtakes place 15 years before the central drama. A boy called Jim, who is waitingoutside a church for his father and brother to come out, gets into a fight.Inside the church, his father (McSorley) and theparish priest Reverend Cray (Lally) talk to Jim'sbrother Gabriel about his obvious vocation as a priest. When they emerge to seethe fight, the father hits Jim hard in the face for brawling outside thechurch.
The contrast between theboys continues into their adulthood. Jim (Mays) is married to Caroline (Birthistle), who runs the local pub with her mother and ispregnant with his baby. He works for his father, who still treats him as thelesser son and waits enthusiastically for the return of Gabriel from missionarywork overseas to take over the parish from the retiring Cray.
When Gabriel arrives, he iswelcomed with open arms, but his bullying sermons and aggressive morality upsetthe balance of the town. He alienates Jim and especially Caroline for servingalcohol, disrupts a popular cockfight she holds illegally at the back of thedrinking den and threatens her when she says she won't baptise the baby when itis born. He even alienates his father when he discovers that the family petrolstation business has some shady dealings of its own.
Using biblical threats ofdamnation, he persuades his father to bequeath the business to him and thechurch, and turns the villagers against Jim and Caroline, but, just as thetownsfolk start attacking the pub, Caroline goes into labour and her baby isborn.
Seeing his grandson, Jim'sfather changes his mind about his will, preferring to favour his livingdescendants rather than influence his uncertain future in heaven. When he tellsGabriel his decision, however, he unwittingly sparks off a rampage which leadsto murder.
Macfadyen is compelling, never succumbing to caricature andinvesting Gabriel with a genuine conflict and devout faith that doesn't feelover-the-top until the fire-and-brimstone finale. Equally strong is Mays, anappealing actor whose masculine vulnerability work perfectly for Jim. Birthistle gives a spirited performance as theuncompromising Caroline, while McSorley does hiscustomary good work as the father torn between heaven and earth.
Green Park Films
The Irish Film Board
Northern Ireland Film & Television Commission
BBC Northern Ireland
The Film Sales Company