‘Small Things Like These’ Review: Cillian Murphy in a Conversation Starter (Berlinale)

In 2021, Claire Keegan’s novel on the Magdalene laundries Small Things Like These was released to acclaim, going on to be shortlisted for the famous Booker Prize. The turnaround between a book’s release and a film adaptation being made can vary, with some taking years to find their adaptive footing. In the case of Small Things Like These, a Tim Mielants-directed adaptation starring Cillian Murphy, the turnaround from book release to film adaptation has been staggeringly quick, with the film premiering at the Berlinale in 2024.

At the Berlinale press conference of Small Things Like TheseMurphy states exactly how and why the turnaround for the film has been so quick: his wife. She read the book, prompted him to read it and they sought the movie rights. Surprisingly, they were available, and after getting producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck involved (the former convinced on the New Mexico set of Chris Nolan’s Oppenheimer) and screenwriter Enda Walsh to pen a script in under two months, the film from concept to product took less than two years. 

Damon said in the conference that he wishes all productions were this easy, but one would argue that gems are polished from friction, and without it, they can be a bit dull. It seems that’s what Small Things Like These has become after such a frictionless production: an unbuffed gem that needs as much of a polish as the protagonist’s coal-encrusted nails.

The story of Small Things Like These

In 1985, Christmas is looming for the residents of a quaint Irish village in County Wexford. Local coal merchant Bill Furlong (Murphy) does his simple blue-collar duties, delivering coal to various village residents, and is shown quite obtusely as a too-gentle soul. The kind of soul who will give change to the son of an alcoholic and pay his workers a hefty bonus, but writer Walsh doesn’t portray Bill as this simplistically nice man who everyone loves as Bill’s eyes dart away from the young girls being playfully harassed by local boys and steer away from the homeless child drinking out of a dogs bowl. 

Mielants, with Walsh’s script, is indicting the blind eye turned by men like Bill and the society that pointedly refuses to acknowledge the shameful Magdalene practices that Irish society was complicit in. This blind eye can’t be turned away for long as Bill’s journey in Small Things Like These is that of garnering the strength necessary to do the right thing at risk of losing everything, including his five daughters and wife, Eileen (Eileen Walsh).

If you’re sat wondering exactly what the Magdalene Laundries are and expect the film to do the heavy lifting of a Google search, you’d be sorely mistaken. There’s little interest in this being a history lesson, alienating audiences outside of Ireland who aren’t privy to the malpractice of the Magdalene sisters. These Catholic faith-following dignitaries, over more than a century, confined an estimated 30,000 women to asylum, of whom they had declared ‘fallen.’ 

Small Things Like These tells the story Murphy’s character’s lens

Small Things Like These pushes the narrative that these women are confined after becoming pregnant out of wedlock, but it was a widespread issue that also included the women who attempted to show autonomy, the use of the word ‘fallen’ indicating anything that wasn’t heteronormative and subservient. The film dedicates itself to those women, but the travesty of it is barely shown. Instead, the turmoil that the women went through is felt and experienced through the lens of the white man reacting to a young girl asking to be thrown into the river or in Bill’s response to a young pregnant girl being trapped inside the coal shed. 

This lens is reinforced by flashbacks to Bill’s childhood, where his pregnant teen mother (Agnes O’Casey) found sanctuary outside the Magdalene Asylum. It’s supposed to reinforce how the act of kindness from saintly Mrs. Wilson (Michelle Fairley) made Bill into the kind, reserved man he grew up to believe himself to be, but it takes up too much time in a film that runs a lean 96 minutes while adding too little depth to the character for what time it takes up. A subplot that also finds little resolution is his mother’s lover, Ned (Mark Mckenna), who finds themselves on the periphery of the flashbacks, mentioned briefly within the film’s present-day timeline. 

Murphy is in staggering form as Bill Furlong

Aesthetically, the film is presented with hazy film grain reminiscent of the Christmas snow, sharp close-ups with the fluorescent yellow street lights sending subliminal warning signs, and tracking shots that follow Bill on his herculean task of eventually refusing conformity. Murphy is in staggering form as a man breaking down over repressed memories, and the film’s measured pace gives him a lot of screen time to brood and pine over his past and future choices. It’s all a little too rhythmic and subdued, however, with every ounce of the film’s simmering power being stripped in favor of keeping the peace like Mielants can’t upend his own film’s status quo. 

The status quo quietly enacted by the Magdalene sisters is the unsaid promise of familial destruction, where the act of Bill not saying anything leads to folded bank notes placed inside a Christmas card that he refuses to open, his own behavior betraying his moral code. Placed there by a scene-stealing Emily Watson in a brief but softly raging scene as the head nun of the institute. That there is only one wall between heinous crimes and the youth of tomorrow is one of the many powerful squeamish fixtures in the script. 

While it’s too subdued for its own good and ends just as drama is threatened, Small Things Like These is, at the very least, a conversation starter. Whether that conversation occurs through necessary Google searches or causes some ripples through Irish households like the book did remains to be seen, but this unhurried indictment of the Magdalene Laundries through a male lens of powerlessness in a society where women held power finds resonance in the small things it’s name mentions. A quiet implosion of religious morality, masculinity, and societal complicity that never feels overwrought, but one can’t help but feel the film is framed from a perspective that lends itself to the very complicity it wants to challenge 

Small Things Like These is now playing at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Did you read the book? Are you excited for Small Things Like These? Connect with us on X @MoviesWeTexted to share your thoughts.


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