Small Things like These: this grimy, moving portrait of 1980s Ireland knows the power of restraint

Cillian Murphy stars as a conflicted soul grappling with his town’s complicity in the mistreatment of local women housed in a Magdalene Laundry in this intimately inhabited adaptation of Claire Keegan’s novella.

22 February 2024

By Jessica Kiang

Cillian Murphy as Bill and Zara Devlin as Sarah in Small Things like These (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

There was a certain quality to the grime that gritted the window frames and car bonnets of 1980s Ireland. It may not be a detail that most viewers will notice, or perhaps they’ll notice but won’t get the same shock of recognition as those of us who grew up tasting it on our teeth after every afternoon bike ride. But Tim Mielants’s Small Things Like These – after 2022’s The Quiet Girl the second fine adaptation of a Claire Keegan story to premiere at  the Berlin Film Festival – abounds in such authentic touches to a borderline eerie degree, as though, if you reached out, you could pick into the peeling paint of the past with your fingernail. It is a small story, set in a small town, pivoting on a small act of grace, in the grand scheme of it all. But that is how big wrongs are addressed, with small things like these. 

Cillian Murphy, immersed in a role that feels like an indie seal of approval for his likely Oppenheimer Oscar, plays Bill Furlong, fuel merchant, husband and father of five girls, who lives in New Ross, County Wexford. He is a quiet man, good to his employees and much beloved, if not wholly understood, by his wife Eileen (Eileen Walsh) and his daughters who make his home life a stable circle of warmth within the dreary Wexford winter. But that’s all a bulwark against a sadness he carries around inside him, that might engulf him otherwise. We get that from the flashbacks to Bill as an old-soul child, looking out for his young, unhappy single mother and being looked out for in turn by a well-off neighbour (Michelle Fairley). But mainly we get it from Murphy himself, his hollow cheeks further contoured by coal dust, his unusual eyes conveying the tectonic depth of which ordinary souls – not just tortured world-famous nuclear physicists – are capable.     

Bill’s eyes, and what they see, are very much the point, as New Ross is sitting on a secret from which respectable people avert their gaze, if they know what’s good for them. Adjoining the Catholic school Bill’s kids attend, there’s a convent ruled with a rod of iron and a jailer’s ring of jangling keys by Sister Mary (Emily Watson, glittering with malicious moral rectitude). It is also the site of a Magdalene laundry, where unwed, pregnant women are confined, maltreated and worked to the bone, until they give birth and their babies are taken away from them. 

Making a delivery to the convent one day, Bill’s eyes see what they’re not supposed to. And when he returns unscheduled soon after, he discovers Sarah (Zara Devlin) banished to the coal shed and shivering. There is little he can do but lead her back inside, into a scene that plays like gothic horror even though Sister Mary barely raises her voice above a whisper, and her torture implements are tea and cakes. “It was all a big load of nothing,” she agrees, echoing Sarah’s terrified lie in a soft, self-satisfied hiss. She gives Bill a Christmas card full of cash. They both pretend it’s not a bribe.

Cillian Murphy as Bill Furlong in Small Things like These (2024)

Mielants is from Belgium but catches well the cadences of the regional colloquialisms woven through Enda Walsh’s screenplay: Sister Mary insisting Bill keep his coat off indoors so he’ll “feel the benefit of it” when he goes out in the chill again; Eileen snapping “Tis far from hardship you were reared.” And though the film takes place at Christmas, the obvious Virgin Birth and Nativity story parallels are never underlined, with the setting more designed to highlight the secular hypocrisy of a cheerful town participating in a season of goodwill and letters to Santa (who also uses coal as a punishment) right outside those cold convent walls. 

In summer this region is known as ‘the sunny south-east’. But in December it is low-lit at midday and dingy at dawn, casting the edges of Frank Van den Eeden’s burnished camerawork into shadow. Along with the specifics of grime and school shoes and bathroom sinks before mixer taps, it creates an intimately inhabited present for characters who can scarcely see three steps in front of them, let alone into the distant future.

Yet if Bill does not know that the laundries will be exposed, and that his conscience is prodding him over to the right side of history, we do. It makes the restrained final scene deeply moving. One girl’s fate is changed and one man’s load is lightened. But a space remains, like an empty chair at dinner, for the others: all the sad, quiet unrescued girls for whom misery was a bead on the rosary.

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