Berlinale 2024: 'Small Things Like These' is Disappointing

The adaptation of the Orwell prize-winning novel, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was the opening film of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.
Berlinale 2024: Small Things Like These is Disappointing
Berlinale 2024: Small Things Like These is Disappointing

Director: Tim Mielants

Writer: Edna Walsh (based on novel by Clare Keegan)

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Watson, Michelle Fairley, Eileen Walsh

Duration: 96 mins

If you have read Clare Keegan’s thin as a thimble novel Small Things Like These, the slimmest to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the cinematic adaptation by Tim Mielants, starring Cillian Murphy, will leave you cold. Keegan, the youngest of six children, who was raised in South-East Ireland, brings a chopped intensity to her clear prose, despite setting them so close to her home. (Don’t we know the kind of garrulous indulgence stories set in personal spaces provokes?) Brevity is a virtue in her oeuvre, one that allows more to swirl, and exist alongside its sparse prickliness. 

Set in a fictitious Irish town, Small Things Like These puts a spotlight on Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, where between the 18th-20th centuries, around 30,000 Irish women, unwed women with children, were incarcerated, their kids carted off to foster homes. This was run and financed by the Catholic church and the Irish state, a historic shriek, given cinematic voice previously in Peter Mullen’s The Magdelene Sisters (2002).

A still from Small Things Like These
A still from Small Things Like These

Bill Furlong (Murphy), a kind and industrious coal merchant married to Eileen (Eileen Walsh) with five daughters, one day, while delivering coal to the Church, comes across one such woman, wretched and being forced into the convent by her own mother. Another day, he finds a girl in the coal shed, and when he returns her to the convent, the haunting Mother Superior (Emily Watson) takes him along airless, winding corridors, and forces him to sit by her, by the fireside, for tea and cake. What she is essentially doing is threatening him. She brings up his daughters and how long the Church’s hand — claws, really — reaches, to make — and what is implied is, break — a life. Bill’s wife tells him not to get involved. Not their war to fight. But Bill is haunted by this impasse. 

The Distraction that is Cillian Murphy

How to translate the thinness of text to the thickness of the image? The image leaves little to the imagination, there is something grotesquely final about it, that to search for more within it is to, often, distract yourself from it, turn away from its surface. This does not bode well for a film based on a text whose motions are rigorously internal. 

Cillian Murphy’s face registers what we might call ambivalence. When he sits at the dinner table, his daughters passing morsels of thought to him, he registers it, even humours them, but it isn’t essential to him, and there is some joy missing from his demeanour, as though he is merely coasting along the motions of his life. The text registers this as “a deep, private joy that these children were his own”. The cinematic incarnation is a shapeless shirk, not resentful, neither profound. The deepness, the privateness of the joy has been buried by Murphy’s visage, a compelling face that has little to offer here except its compelling sheen. 

A still from Small Things Like These
A still from Small Things Like These

And that sheen is, to be fair, blinding, one that cinematographer Frank van den Eeden ravishes his attention with. When Bill first sees a woman being dragged into the church, he is in darkness, in the coal shed, and his alabaster skin, dusted with coal, glows from within. Even the act of him washing his hands, scrubbing them of any remnants of his labour — a repetition that dots the film — is elevated to presence. But presence rarely secures character. 

Similarly, when he is first confronted by the possibility of state-church violence, his reaction isn’t horror but a kind of shirking despondence. The film tries to make that link between this shirking despondence and horror that makes him take a drastic step — and in that it even uses a clumsy flashback to his childhood, haunted as he is — but this transition feels like a jerking leap. It almost feels unnecessary, unbelonging to him. The question of why this event triggers this flashback now is also lethargically dealt with.

That is perhaps the quality of Keegan's prose which allows the horror to circulate in our minds, and so that tether is spooled within us. But the inviting thinness of the text, which should translate to a thickness in the image, does not take place. The horror is, instead, registered as flimsy, the performance of it unbearably flat, and the fragile catharsis for it, watery and inchoate. 

Film Companion’s Berlinale coverage was made possible by the support of Goethe Mumbai. 

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