R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Brian Kirk
scr Daragh Carville
with Matthew Macfadyen, Daniel Mays, Eva Birthistle, Gerard McSorley, Richard Dormer, David Wilmot, Mick Lally, Sorcha Cusack, David Herlihy, Frankie McCafferty, Bronagh Gallagher, Charlene McKenna
release US 28.Apr.06 Tribeca;
UK 2.Mar.07
06/Ireland 1h28

Burn baby burn: Macfadyen

macfadyen mays birthistle

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Middletown Moody and involving, this starts as an intriguing examination of religion in a 1960s Irish village, then devolves into a simplistic good-vs-evil thriller. But strong performances keep it interesting.

The Hunter brothers have never been equal in the eyes of their father (McSorley). The sombre Gabriel (Macfadyen) is the angel, always doing the right thing and making his family proud by studying to be a preacher. Meanwhile, the life-loving Jim (Mays) is the black sheep, always in trouble, getting in fights, and then marrying Caroline (Birthistle), the local pub owner's daughter. Now Gabriel has been assigned to run the local church, and he plans to save the immoral residents of Middletown from hellfire and brimstone. Whatever it takes.

Director Kirk pulls out all the stops on atmosphere, shooting in a shadowy, gritty way that heightens the gloomy unpleasantness. Through his eyes, 1960s Ireland is an overwhelmingly cold, filthy place--echoing the oppressive religious morality that rules the village with an iron fist. That Gabriel's moral outrage isn't remotely Christian is beside the point: in writer Carville's universe, anyone with a religious belief is pure evil. The script spends so much time twisting the Bible out of context (clearly, Jim and his dad paid to send Gabriel to a seriously awful seminary) that you get the feeling Carville has a major axe to grind.

But aside from this irresponsible theology, the film builds its freak-out tone very cleverly. Macfadyen adds some nicely subtle shadings to the overtly sinister Gabriel, an unhinged man who feels its his religious duty to clean up Middletown and put his family back on the straight and narrow. Or kill them trying. Meanwhile, Mays and Birthistle are superb as the more worldly-wise brother and (heavily pregnant) sister-in-law trapped in a mini-Armageddon.

As a whole, the film is flippant and simplistic about its themes, but thoroughly creepy and frightening as it builds suspense to the boiling point. The overwrought climax is thoroughly unsettling, although the filmmakers abandon any complexity for a big blow-out of a finale that concludes like a 1960s morality play. A little subtlety could have made this a minor gem.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 7.Sep.06

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2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall