Friday, April 19, 2024

“SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE”

THE STORY – It is 1985 in the run-up to Christmas in a small town in County Wexford, Ireland. Bill Furlong toils as a coal merchant to support himself, his wife, and his five daughters. Early one morning, while out delivering coal at the local convent, he makes a discovery that forces him to confront his past and the complicit silence of a town controlled by the Catholic Church.

THE CAST – Cillian Murphy, Emily Watson, Eileen Walsh, Michelle Fairley, Clare Dunne & Helen Behan

THE TEAM – Tim Mielants (Director) & Enda Walsh (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes


“Small Things Like These,” the new film from Tim Mielants, which premiered as the opening night film at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival, is a quiet film with a fire raging in its heart. Based on Claire Keegan’s 2021 novel of the same name, it follows a coal delivery man, Bill (Cillian Murphy), as he makes a discovery in the Irish town of New Ross during the Christmas season of 1985 that threatens to disrupt the local community.

Bill is a kind man of few words. He has a wife, played by Eileen Walsh, and five daughters, whom he dotes on tenderly and employees he treats with respect. An early scene shows Bill giving money to a young boy whose father is an alcoholic. He is berated by his wife for this act, but it’s a defining trait of the character that is necessarily established early on. Murphy’s performance appears understated, but a deep sadness threatens to emerge at any moment as Bill struggles to suppress the painful memories of his childhood, shown in sometimes awkwardly edited flashbacks, where he was raised under the care of his unwedded mother and the woman who took them in, Mrs Wilson, played by “Game Of Thrones” alumni Michelle Fairley. When Bill comes across a young pregnant girl (Zara Devlin) being imprisoned in a coal shed at the local convent, he is forced to grapple with a decision: to save the girl and, by association the memory of his own mother, or maintain the routine of his life at the expense of his morality and the women who are imprisoned in the convent.

Like many places in Ireland in the 1980s, New Ross in County Wexford is built around the catholic church. Bill’s daughters go to a convent school, sing carols in a choir conducted by nuns, and families orbit around the church like it’s the sun. It is the pillar of the community in a place where one has to conform to the status quo. It is understood that the convent runs an associated Magdalene laundry, which was a workhouse where “fallen women” were sent. Here, young women and little girls were hidden away from society, forced to work under terrible conditions, abused by the church, and many had their babies taken from them. In “Small Things Like These,” the locals never acknowledge the conditions under which the young women are treated, but it’s a well-known secret.

It would be easy to blame Bill and the townspeople, to say they should stand up against the injustice in the convent. But it’s not indifference that drives the people in New Ross; it’s fear. At the time, the Catholic Church had a lot of political power and, in many cases, had control over public services such as schools. Emily Watson’s tight-lipped and cordial portrayal of Sister Mary is terrifyingly sinister, and it only takes one scene with her to understand the power she holds within the community. When Bill quietly confronts her regarding the treatment of the girls in the convent, she reminds him that he has young children who are yet to be admitted into the convent school. Despite the polite tone with which Watson delivers this threat, it is not subtle in its meaning; to get on the wrong side of the nuns is a mistake that can have enormous consequences for a struggling family. In 1985, Ireland was going through a prolonged recession with high levels of unemployment. To ostracise your family from the church was to condemn them, and the film understands and effectively communicates these stakes.

The subtlety of “Small Things Like These” might not be to everyone’s taste. Enda Walsh’s script is simple, made up of tiny moments that add up to a picture of a life. It is a film with a silence that must not be mistaken for emptiness, as it’s what’s unsaid that rings the loudest, comprised of knowing looks exchanged between people and hushed whispers. Even the colors for the film’s aesthetic are subdued. Tim Mielants’ direction is strong and conveys a somber tone well, with most shots composed of shades of grey, brown, and black. Much of the film takes place at nighttime, with Murphy’s silhouette illuminated only by street lamps. There’s no tear-jerking score, only an ominous soundscape that fades in a handful of times and fades away as quickly as it arrives. This film does not want to draw attention to itself, but there are times when “Small Things Like These” plays like a thriller. Bill continuously notices the systematic oppression that exists around him, in the form of girls being harassed by men, a young child who drinks water from a dog bowl on the street, and the girl locked in the coal shed in the dead of winter. The sounds of a screaming baby through an open door, a woman being violently dragged away by her own mother. All of it takes place in a disturbingly hushed world that lives around the horrors, pretending nothing is happening.

“Small Things Like These” is a beautiful exploration of the grief that destroyed generations of families. Mielants is able to portray this restrained and dark screenplay by Walsh with nuance and without exploitation. It feels intimate and forces the audience to confront their own complicity in the prevalent evil surrounding them. As the film comes to an end, there is a dedication to the thousands of women and young girls who were forced to work in the Magdalene laundries and the children who were taken from them and forced to live a life without their mothers. Bill represents so many real people who have struggled to speak out against the abuse the Catholic Church inflicted, and the film is masterful in its exploration of the difficulty of breaking out of societal oppression.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The story is profoundly affecting and well supported by solid yet understated crafts. Performances given by Cillian Murphy and Emily Watson are very strong.

THE BAD - The script is sometimes too subdued, and some flashback scenes disrupt the film's tone.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The story is profoundly affecting and well supported by solid yet understated crafts. Performances given by Cillian Murphy and Emily Watson are very strong.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The script is sometimes too subdued, and some flashback scenes disrupt the film's tone.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE"