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Small Things Like These

Excruciatingly boring drama about Magdalene laundries boasts a top-drawer cast (including Cillian Murphy and Emily Watson) and has absolutely nothing relevant to say - from the Official Competition of 74th Berlin International Film Festival


A-list festivals tend to make safe, unprovocative movie choices for their opening ceremony. You would expect the 74th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival to be a little different. That’s because the organisers promised an openly political event. The Minister of State for Culture and media Claudia Roth attended the ceremony and delivered a fiery speech purporting to champion social justice and world peace. Plus exceptionally this year, the opening film happens to be in the event’s Official Competition. Small Things Like These boasts no such qualities. Tim Mielants’s soporific new creation is neither audacious nor political. Neither inventive nor remarkable. It shouldn’t be in the Competition. In fact, it shouldn’t even be in the Festival. The only reason why it was given such a prominent slot is the fact that it features two Oscar-nominated actors. Cillian Murphy and Emily Watson were two of the most sought-after celestial bodies on the star-studded carpet. The Irish actor is the favourite to win the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in Christopher Nolan’s history-whitewashing drama Oppenheimer in less then a month. The English actress already has two statuettes under her belt.

Based on Claire Keegan’s eponymous novel, Small Things Like These tells the story of an Irish coal merchant (Bill Furlong, played by Murphy) during the 1980s in a small town of Southwestern Ireland. The father of countless daughters (I registered somewhere between five and seven helpless little girls) delivers his product to the infamous Magdalene Laundries, which imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of vulnerable Irish women throughout most of the 20th century. These disreputable servants of God are under the purview of the sadistic and manipulative Sister Mary (Watson). She is seemingly keen to recruit every lass in town, even if her motives are never entirely clear. Bill befriends Sarah Redmond (Zara Devlin), a tortured inmate so haggard that she can barely talk and stand. Poor little thing!

There is virtually nothing to savage in this film. The 96-minute drama is virtually devoid of political and historical contextualisation, except for a brief note stating the total number of women confined in the Laundries. Those who has seen the sexually depraved nuns in Peter Mullan’s harrowing The Magdalene Sisters (2003) are in for a big disappointment: Small Things Like These fails to evoke shock and indignation, and it’s scarcely realistic. The script is a real mess: I could not work pout what happened to Bill’s enormous brood (the girls mysteriously disappear from the story; we are briefly told that three of them were sent to the controversial asylum, however there is little clue as to when/how this happened). Another loose plot involves Bill’s mother, and another one flashbacks of his childhood – all randomly disconnected. The heavy artificial lighting makes the cinematography look cheap and infantile: you could almost see the towering flames of hell inside the now-defunct institutions, particularly behind the demonic Sister Mary as she delivers her expletive-laden tirades.

Bill and Sarah have a perma-miserable look printed on their faces, so exaggerated that it’s impossible to feel sorry for them. Murphy plays the kind and tormented soul, a character not dissimilar to Robert Oppenheimer (a sad and virtuous mass murderer). His voice is constantly soft, his lips often tremble; it looks like he’s gonna break down and cry so compulsively that his body will melt into the ground. His biggest strength is surviving his own insufferable company. Not a single film person offers significant hope. In other words, this is an excruciatingly boring misery-fest that offers neither repletion nor redemption. The stock characters are so unidimensional you could make a list and separate the “good” from the “bad” ones. The film does not boast one single gut-punching scene. The climax comes in the very final scene and is cut abruptly short without any meaningful conclusion, and long before inducing adrenaline release.

Small Things Like These just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. Run like the devil!

By Victor Fraga - 16-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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