“The scale of any project is secondary – it’s always about the quality of the writing”: Cillian Murphy on Small Things like These

The actor’s first film since Oppenheimer is a quiet, pained drama about the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, where young pregnant women were sent to work and their babies were sold for adoption.

14 February 2024

By Sinéad Gleeson

Small Things like These (2024)
Sight and Sound

After the huge success of Oppenheimer, which has included Oscar, Bafta and Sag nominations and a Golden Globe win for Cillian Murphy, many are curious to know where the actor will go next. In fact, his subsequent film got off the ground thanks to an on-set conversation with his Oppenheimer co-star Matt Damon. The pair were on a night shoot in the desert, and between takes Damon discussed his new production company Artists Equity. Murphy confided that he was excited about a script based on the 2021 historical novella Small Things like These by the Irish writer Claire Keegan; when Damon read it, he immediately came on board as an executive producer, along with Ben Affleck.

“It happened quickly,” Murphy says on a video call from his Dublin home. “Normally these things never do, you know? I read constantly, and I love Claire’s work, so I assumed the rights to her novel wouldn’t be available, but they were – and I had an inkling it could be very cinematic.” Given his current success, many in the industry might have assumed he would gravitate to a big-budget project, but Murphy was determined to make this film. “We were already trying to get Small Things off the ground and then Oppenheimer came along. The scale of any project is secondary – it’s always about the quality of the writing.”

Murphy’s role in Small Things like These is a big contrast to his performance in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster. Bill Furlong, a father of five daughters, works as a coal delivery man in 1980s Ireland. One key early scene – in which a soot-faced Murphy makes a delivery to a local convent – leads to a sequence of painful events. He sees a young girl pleading with her mother, who attempts to force her through its forbidding doors. The camera focuses on Murphy’s face, clouded with shame at witnessing something he shouldn’t, and a haunted awareness that something unjust is happening. Later, he meets a girl called Sarah, his mother’s name, which adds deeper meaning. The film offers a glimpse of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, notorious institutions that took in pregnant girls and forced them to do unpaid manual labour, while their babies were in effect sold for adoption.

Watching Small Things like These, it’s hard not to feel a familiar rumble of anger, exacerbated by the fact that although the story feels old, the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland only closed in 1996. “It feels like a completely different country now,” Murphy says, “but the events in the film take place in living memory. It’s a small book, but not a small story – not politically or emotionally, and not to me.”

This isn’t the first work of Keegan’s to make it to the big screen. The Quiet Girl (2022), based on her novella Foster (2010), became the first Irish-language film to be nominated for an Oscar. Small Things is less about what happens behind the grim convent walls than about Furlong’s own psychological turmoil, following another shocking event in the priory. The film expands on the book’s themes of intergenerational trauma and how patterns in communities can repeat. Murphy is superb in the role, subtle and physical, tending towards silences and gestures.

Small Things like These (2024)

“The book’s title is about this accumulation of incidents over Bill’s life,” says the actor, “and when we meet him over the course of that Christmas, he’s brought to this sort of awakening of his own past.” It can be difficult to transfer such internalised quiet moments to screen. Screenwriter Enda Walsh stuck very closely to the original text and felt “the less we gave, the more space there was for an audience to feel it. It gathers its own anxiety.”

Murphy had collaborated with Walsh on his plays Misterman (2011) and Ballyturk (2014), and the playwright gave him his first ever stage role in Disco Pigs in 1996 (he also starred in a 2001 screen version). Walsh jumped at the chance to work with the actor again. “Cillian doesn’t allow things to get general – many people in this business do – so you end up disappointed that you didn’t make exactly the work you wanted to make. As a producer he made some excellent calls in the edit, as well as putting together a really great cast and crew.”

Bill’s wife is played by Eileen Walsh, who starred with Murphy in Disco Pigs on stage. There’s a strong sense that Murphy is motivated by trust when it comes to those he works with. “The thing about re-collaboration is that you go straight to the work. There’s no sounding people out, or testing the waters. Our director [Tim Mielants] said that when he put the camera on Eileen and me for the first time, he could feel the history – and she’s sensational in the film. So, I’m a big believer in using that trust and friendship and transferring it over into film, or theatre. I think it really helps.”

Murphy had also worked with Mielants on Peaky Blinders (2013-22) and wanted to find a way team up with him again. “He’s a real artist and is extraordinary with actors. I also liked the fact that he’s Belgian, not Irish. If you look back at a lot of the great Irish films of the last 20 years, many are made by directors who are not from Ireland. With a film like this, it was important to have some distance from the subject.”

This is Murphy’s first time producing a film; he credits his production partner Alan Moloney with doing “most of the heavy lifting… I was very much a creative partner in terms of script, score and editing, but I learned lots about actually putting a film together and really enjoyed it.” It was shot in New Ross, County Wexford, where the book is set, using the town’s actual convent and a real house as the family home. A palette of greys and browns throughout highlights the poverty of an era of mass emigration and job scarcity. The sound was designed by Senjan Jansen – sonorous church bells, fretful geese – and it cleaves to the audio trajectory of the whole film: minimal, prone to silences, offering the audience a neutrality where they can make up their own minds. On 15 February, Small Things like These will become the first Irish film to open the Berlinale. It’s tender, understated, humane and unsentimental; and a timely reminder to never forget the horrors of the past.

Other things to explore

interviews

Kirsten Dunst and Alex Garland on Civil War: “I don’t feel any need to add to the number of films that spell everything out”

By Lou Thomas

Kirsten Dunst and Alex Garland on Civil War: “I don’t feel any need to add to the number of films that spell everything out”
interviews

Girls State: what we learned when teenage girls were put in charge of everything

By Faye D. Effard

Girls State: what we learned when teenage girls were put in charge of everything
interviews

Silver Haze: how we made our arson-attack survivor drama

By Leigh Singer

Silver Haze: how we made our arson-attack survivor drama