Anyone looking to debate the limits of progress should cast an eye on 1980s Ireland. As a generation born in revolution and civil war moved from farms to towns, a middle class emerged. Some people had televisions; if they were good, some of their kids had Levi’s jeans. As certain things loosened, the Catholic church’s grip on most aspects of Irish life seemed to only grow tighter. Between 1922 and 1996, and aided by a callow state, the church was responsible for imprisoning tens of thousands of women (mostly young single mothers who couldn’t afford the child) into what was essentially indentured servitude. In these “laundries,” women worked seven days a week and weren’t allowed to leave. Their babies were taken from them and sold for adoption, or worse. Around 1,600 women died. The number of babies is estimated to be in the thousands.

The awful tragedy of those events and the way the nation wilfully looked away have inspired many writers and filmmakers––Peter Mullan in 2002 (The Magdalene Sisters), Joe Murtagh last year (The Woman in The Wall)––but few to the same acclaim as Claire Keegan’s softly stated, powerfully evocative 2020 novella Small Things Like These, which now gets the big screen treatment in Tim Mielants’ faithful adaptation. Starring a dogged Cillian Murphy and adapted by the playwright Enda Walsh, it premiered as the curtain-raiser of the 74th Berlin Film Festival––risking faintest of praise, it is the best film to do so in years.

Focusing on an introverted coal merchant named Bill Furlong (Murphy), Keegan’s story approaches the Laundry’s horrors through the eyes of a man whose own mother only narrowly avoided them. That formative act of kindness—her employer, a widow named Mrs Wilson (played in flashback by Michelle Fairley), not only allowed Bill and his mother to carry on under her roof, but also helped raise Furlong after his mother’s untimely death—has instilled him with a fundamental kindness and protective spirit. Not least, it seems, for vulnerable kids: in an early scene, Mielants shows Furlong stopping his truck in the middle of the road to give a boy he knows some loose change. Furlong knows this will draw the scorn of his wife, the pragmatic Eileen (Eileen Furlong), with whom he has five daughters (the centrality of women throughout his life is not insignificant to the story). He keeps them fed and well-clothed with the money he earns delivering coal around the town of New Ross––a decent business it seems, even in trying times. One day, while out doing the rounds, he finds himself inside the doors of the local laundry and witnesses things that upset his already cautious equilibrium. In the spirit of Keegan’s sparse prose, we should probably not give much else away.

The challenge of adapting comes in finding ways to bring more subtle elements to screen without relying too much on exposition. While mostly succeeding in this, Melliant and Walsh use flashbacks to show Bill’s younger years––an understandable addition, though Small Things loses considerable steam sans Murphy’s presence. With notable patience, Mielants (who directed Murphy in six episodes of Peaky Blinders) allows the darkness to gradually seep in.

Born in a town outside Brussels, Mielants deserves credit for tackling such a shameful part of Irish history: Small Things gets at the lingering traumas with a clear sense of time and place. DP Frank Van den Eeden captures the overcast South East in not entirely unkind greys and browns. On Furlong’s rounds, we get a lovely recurring shot from on top of his battered delivery truck that gives an overview of the grandly unforgiving landscape. On those rounds, we also start to understand everything we need to know about him: the way he conducts his business, his generosity to his employees, the importance of the convent’s money to his livelihood, not to mention his family. As a barwoman informs him, “There’s only a wall separating that place from the school.”

Murphy, who developed the film with the producer Alan Moloney and his Oppenheimer co-star Matt Damon, gives a characteristically tender, interior performance as a man burdened with a conscious even heavier than his considerable knitwear. Unflappable as the icy Sister Mary, Emily Watson takes a scalpel to the kind of scenes a lesser actor would approach with an axe. Through small references (on a radio, we hear reports of the prizefighter Barry McGuigan), Meliants nods to the beginning of an era when Ireland’s national pride swelled. Seemingly going on little more than a gut feeling, Furling appears as a man not fully convinced by it all. There are shades of Rust Cole in his downcast performance, even Joe from You Were Never Really Here. There’s a few instances where Meliants shows him looking out from the coal shed, half-visible in the soot and fading light, a little war being waged in his head. To act or not to act––a small thing indeed.

Small Things Like These premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B+

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