Small Things Like These (2024)

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Small Things Like These (2024)

Since “28 Days Later” up until his latest role in “Oppenheimer,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, Cillian Murphy has been known for playing the strong silent type but one who is anything but inscrutable. His face, beautiful and sharp-boned, twitches and tightens and teems with feeling. It’s always thinking when it gets closeup, wrestling with surges of vulnerability or violence, watching other characters do the same. Busy-bee busy; never blank. A story of the unspeakable gradually leaving the realm of the unsaid, “Small Things Like These” relies on both his quietness and his restlessness as an actor. As a blue-collar family man who grows more and more aware of sin in the sacred heart of his community, he is not only Belgian director Tim Mielants’ delicate film’s conscience but also its live emotional wire.

But if Murphy’s Bill Furlong is quiet, then folks hereabouts are stony still. New Ross is a sleepy place in Ireland’s County Wexford that like the whole country broodingly kneels before the Catholic Church, local convent head Sister Mary (Emily Watson) is held by all in tense, unthinking reverence. It’s 1985; there’ll be no great institutional reckoning for some years yet. But people know enough to look discreetly away from those stern old doors whenever young girls in trouble are pushed through them: One wall separates them from a school attended by luckier kids among them Bill’s five daughters and any cries or screams heard through bricks remain quickly unheard by communal agreement.

Adroitly adapted by playwright Enda Walsh from Claire Keegan’s Booker-shortlisted novella “Foster,” Small Things Like These counts on viewers being fully aware what goes on behind those doors namely a catalogue of abuse inflicted upon “fallen” women and their children incarcerated in Ireland’s corrupt, Catholic-run Magdalene laundries. The truth has long since been unpacked, whether through news exposés or artworks like Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters,” or the anguished testimony of survivors such as the late Sinéad O’Connor; neither Keegan’s book nor Mielants’ film is out to graphically rake through it. Rather, the drama lies in the community blind spots maintained through innocence and avoidance in equal measure that allowed these establishments to thrive as long as they did.

“You have to ignore certain things if you want to get on in this life,” Bill’s steely, straight-and-narrow wife Eileen (Eileen Walsh) tells him when he shows disconcerting signs of peering into the void and she says peering into a void because no figure within earshot ever comes close to verbally acknowledging anything rotten about a God-fearing community that seems to fear God’s appointed officers most of all. So Bill, who was always taciturn anyway but also has never quite stood inside that circle, complies. Born into his mother’s unwed teenage shame but spared her fate after being taken in by wealthy, kindly landowner Mrs. Wilson (Michelle Fairley), he bristles at any shaming of women in equivalent predicaments. But his guilt and grief give him leaden feet and a wakeful mind; when he scrubs his hands clean after delivering coal and turf all day round town, it is with the force of seeking new skin unsullied.

Taking place in the days leading up to Christmas, “Small Things Like These” capitalizes on the winter’s low light which is very dim at its brightest point of the day in this part of southeast Ireland and on the darkness lit by seasonal, face-saving lights and garlands. The color palette of cinematographer Frank van den Eeden (“Close”) is predominantly canvas and rust, with patches of half-lit clarity amid the drear, it should be cozy but it isn’t. Every frame here buzzes with tension over things unseen: That’s before Bill, while delivering coal to the convent, steps uninvited past the doors, into a fug of oak-panelled oppression.

She accosts him with a frantic plea to help her escape, Sarah (Zara Devlin), a newly admitted young mother. She’s as wild-eyed as Sister Mary is impeccably serene in her interception. Aided by Watson’s chilly, uncreased performance, Mielants flirts with ecclesiastical horror movie gothicity but doesn’t have to push it far; there’s enough threat here in plain reality, down to the few pound notes that Mary pointedly folds into a Christmas card and hands Bill as a family gift. He never opens them but neither does he refuse them: Any resistance is qualified at best and ineffectual ultimately in this culture of open secrecy founded on petty standards of politeness and neighborly compliance.

Alive to the conversational traps and swerves that keep small-town consciences closed if not clean Walsh’s spare, sharp dialogue does justice to this while Mielants contributes an outsider’s view from behind his lens as he shoots New Ross’ tight streets, cramped pubs and adjoining two-up-two-down houses with a reserve that only underlines their insular proximity. However it’s Murphy’s performance of exquisitely restrained pain opening out by increments into something like grace that gives “Small Things Like These” its eventual, gut-punch impact; even as the film skirts melodramatic confrontation to the very end and finishes with a graceful ellipsis where many other stories might start.

Action preempts any need for questioning, or negotiation, or talk at all: At least for one moment Murphy’s face wrinkles and tightens with enough defiant moral certainty to right a church, a country and a history of hurt.

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