It doesn’t take long for the zealous young minister – the film doesn’t specify a denomination, although he is clearly Protestant - to discover that things in town have changed in his absence. The people have neglected the church and taken to drinking, gambling and cockfighting, mostly in the local pub, run by the heavily-pregnant, turquoise mini-skirted Caroline. With a name derived from the archangel of God and a nod to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Gabriel wastes no time in explaining to his congregation that they are hypocrites and sinners who must change their ways or face damnation. Bible-thumper or not, he’s right. Middletown is a nasty place, sharp-tongued and violent, peopled with sleeveens and ignoramuses that, for the most part, deserve what’s coming to them.
Director Kirk builds an atmosphere of steeply arched gothic, angling his camera from the rafters of the pokey church or shadowed under the low lintel of the pub door. There is an insistent sense of physical discomfort throughout the film; from the mildewed, cramped interiors to the itch of the wet woollen costumes and the straight backs demanded by hard wooden pews. There is no succour for the infirm either; corrective eye-patches, crutches and unchecked aches and twinges go to remind the parishioners that their deliverance will not come from science.
Daragh Carville’s screenplay begins as a drama about the chasm that exists between the ideals of a fundamentalist church and the reality of life as people live it, but ultimately wanders back to more familiar genre territory. Without some element of a personal history or any sense of humanity (even a simple mark like the ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ etched on Robert Mitchum’s lumpy knuckles), Gabriel’s mission loses its spiritual dimension and becomes a procedural psychotic rampage. There are hints at a greater darkness, like a scene where the minister furiously scrubs his bare chest with wire-wool, but this territory isn’t explored in detail. There’s no mistaking Macfadyen’s blank-eyed conviction, whatever its source, but in the clunky melodramas that follow, he is a one-dimensional zealot, a stiff, lifeless cipher.
Better is Daniel Mays performance as the craven second-born son Jim, who can’t afford to get his house built and is smuggling diesel for spare cash. A graduate of the reflexive, freewheeling films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Mays has a mobile face, quick and expressive. Eva Birthistle gives another rich performance as the independent, quick-to-anger Caroline, a woman who fights for her rights to make her own decisions but allows the men of the village to hold weekly cockfights in her cellar to sell more beer. Of the rest of the cast, Richard Dormer as Skinner, a grotesque butcher and Sorcha Cusack as Caroline’s protective mother give sturdy support. A mournful Mick Lally as the retiring former minister drops out understandably early but Bronagh Gallagher is lost in the background of a handful of crowd scenes, an oddly silent, anonymous presence.