Small Things Like These, Tim Mielants
Photo: Courtesy of Berlinale

‘Small Things Like These’ Is a Haunting Meditation on Collective Sin

Which is the greater horror, Small Things Like These asks; the women who suffered under Ireland’s abusive Magdalene Laundries or the citizens’ complicity?

Small Things Like These
Tim Mielants
15 February 2024 (Berlinale)

Not often does one come across a mostly silent, quasi-arthouse film metaphysically examining historical crimes through the eyes of a single man. Even more rarely will such a film be signed with names like Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon as producers or stars. Then again, most films and the novels they draw from do not bare the secrets of Irish history, a topic of considerable interest to decidedly political Murphy. Nor are the ideas for these morally complex works lost on Damon, himself a Hollywood powerhouse and co-founder of the production company Artists Equity.

All it took was two friends stuck together in the New Mexico desert, chatting between their takes for Christopher Nolan’s juggernaut Oppenheimer about their love for important stories that normally don’t get funding and a bit of star power – and Small Things Like These was made. At least so the story Murphy and Damon told at the film’s Berlinale world premiere goes.

It’s a good story, and it makes sense: for politically engaged folks looking to make a high-stakes, low-risk film feature set in Ireland, Claire Keegan’s tale of a small-town coal merchant facing an impossible decision is a no-brainer. Her economic, 128-page historical novella published in 2021 won several prizes and gently opened the door to the many necessary conversations on what accepting oppression does to entire peoples. Indeed, Keegan’s work has been so influential in a historical and political context that it is already studied in the curricula of universities such as Oxford.

Small Things Like These, the film, directed by Murphy’s occasional Peaky Blinders collaborator Tim Mielants, follows the beat of the book in every respect, staying true to the quietly devastating source material. Over a terse 97 minutes and a handful of simple scenes with bare-bones dialogue, the story of Bill Furlong (Cillian Murphy) is shown, not told.

It is Christmas 1985 in New Ross, a fortuneless, working-class small-town harbor in Southeast Ireland. The uniformly dreary, moss-laden houses are no more capable of concealing the overall destitution than the toiling people dressed in ragged monochrome, silently blending in with their joyless surroundings.  Were it not for Dexys Midnight Runners‘ song “Come on Eileen” incongruously blasting on a radio, you’d be certain this scene was set in the prior century. 

Bill, a minor provincial coal supplier, works day and night to support his wife Eileen (piously humane Eileen Walsh) and their five daughters, whom they hope will get a proper education through the local church. Nothing at all remarkable happens – until one day. Bill witnesses a resisting teenage girl being dragged to the local Magdalene Laundries by her mother. As the sisters lug her inside, the girl keeps screaming, begging for help. So Bill’s spiral of dilemmatic anguish and memories of his own tormented childhood begin to escalate.

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were religious asylums that exploited prostituted, pregnant out of wedlock, and other marginalized women for free labor. The Laundries, orchestrated by Catholic and Protestant clergy alike between approximately 1765 and 1996, were profit machines riding on the backs of the voiceless and the abused. At a minimum, 30,000 women were taken to the “self-supporting” Laundries from the 19th century onward, held in captivity, and forced to toil in physically demanding jobs, most notably by doing laundry.

On the face of it, the eternally benevolent and well-meaning Church was hard at work trying to reduce prostitution and keep “wayward” women “off the streets”. In reality, the number of prostituted women never diminished; the Magdalene Laundries proliferated as a successful business model and expanded their “admission criteria” to include mentally ill women, single mothers with nowhere to go, and any other women who posed a challenge – wittingly or not – to the patriarchal moral order of the local community. 

With no relatives who would vouch for these “fallen” vixens, thousands of women spent their entire lives incarcerated and abused, many ending up taking the vow. The Magdalen asylums persisted not despite but because of the traditionalist patriarchal norms of the Irish. The exploitation of women for profit went along just fine with much of the global society’s attitudes toward both subject matters, and Ireland was no exception. In a morbidly curious way, the Magdalene Laundries were one of the first examples of institutional neoliberalism, advertising and emphasizing individual, “personal” growth through “hard work” and “curing” oneself of a “self-inflicted” malaise. It was never about faith.

Carried by another trademark Cillian Murphy performance of barely suppressed agony endlessly on the edge of implosion, Small Things Like These is a visually and narratively all-around dark experience. Murky earth tones, exiguous premises, and a Loachian sense of socioeconomic decay linger in each shot. In general, not much happens, but the brief anecdotes from Bill’s tedium make for some stark imagery. The repetitiveness of a break of dawn commute followed by a late-night hunched hike uphill to a humble home, where his five daughters huddle around a single table, is as depressing as it is illustrative. In this static environment with its glimmers of hope, one can only count on a disquieting externality or a masochistically emotional turn inward to shake oneself up. 

In Bill’s life, there is both. One day, he comes across a hapless neighbor’s kid shakily stacking small branches of firewood, lying that he only needs them to play with his dog; mournfully, Bill insists he takes a few pennies and moves on. This same grief hits him when, one morning, he finds the girl he previously saw dragged into the Laundries, now curled up, shivering, and pregnant, in his coal shed. His indecisiveness about whether and how to help the tyrannized teenager will trigger his memories of a dreadful childhood when he and his single mother were saved by a wealthy woman who took them in. The anxiety and guilt he feels about the file will eat at him, manifested through brusque dialogues with Eileen (who insists the world is too cruel to care about everyone) or frenetic scrubbing of his hands to wash away the (proverbial) dirt. 

Finally, Bill will have to determine what kind of a man he is. The Laundries sisters, led by the malevolent Mary Schwester (a laconically demonic Emily Watson who won the Silver Bear for her performance), have “their fingers in many pies” and control the local populace, including the Furlongs, for whose subsistence they take credit. As Bill’s coal regulars and his daughters’ patrons, they get to decide the family’s fate. Should Bill opt for helping the runaway child, his five girls may end up fodder for exactly such a place. On the other hand, he finds it impossible to ignore the depth of betrayal on behalf of the Irish institutions.

In a key scene inside the asylum, Bill will be confronted by Mary, who will mince no words reminding him of the consequences of his disobedience. Cartoonish as it appears, I found it convincing. After all, displays of untamed power most often come with brash vulgarity. The church, Small Things Like These argues, is no different in this respect.

There is a good reason why, Cillian Murphy says, Small Things Like These‘s “story of women has a man (and not the female victims) in its center”. For more than 30,000 women whose lives were diminished and shattered by the Magdalene Laundries, retroactive heroism or fictional poetic justice would simply be Keegan’s method of self-serving hypocrisy had she chosen that route. Instead, the piercing silence and horrifying stillness that permeate every page and frame of Small Things Like These are political statements in themselves.

Bill, paralyzed and impotent in the face of well-oiled, effortless systemic horror, is a paradigm of his community, the same one that had been aware of the monstrosities for centuries but did little other than maintain complicity through reticent avoidance. Any excess of words would, in this case, only add insult to injury.

Relatedly, Murphy has been reluctant to call Bill a “hero” or imply that Small Things Like These offers a happy ending. At Small Things Like These’s world premiere at the Berlinale, he sharply observed that one act of kindness does not supplant everything that came before it, nor does it absolve a person from everything that could come after. Bill’s actions, few and far apart, come from personal motivations, not a moral duty, a crucial difference when examining societal issues. 

Small Things Like These is as incomplete as the lives of the Laundry victims, at times maddeningly so. Some have observed that the film could have been made more potent with additional dialogue and insights into the nature of the Magdalene Laundries that plague Irish history, and I cannot deny this. Murphy’s rare ability to carry an emotionally complex feature with little more than his pained gaze is powerful. However, overtly political work like this could benefit from a more layered context. Bill’s conflict with the church, however personal here, is far from a private affair.

In the end, it was not a social movement but rather the advent of the washing machine that presumably brought about the dismantling of the Magdalene Laundries in the ’80s. To date, neither the Catholic nor Protestant churches that have profited from this atrocity have agreed to pay reparations to their victims.