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Small Things Like These

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Small Things Like These
Photograph: Berlin Film FestivalCillian Murphy in ‘Small Things Like These’

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy gently unmoors in this heartsore adaptation of the Claire Keegan novel

Fresh from his first Oscar-nomination for Christopher Nolan’s atomic blockbuster Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy returns to his home turf for Berlinale-opening movie Small Things Like These. Adapted from Claire Keegan’s achingly interior, Orwell Prize-winning novella, it follows a few days in the life of Bill, a small-town coal merchant in the bitter cold days leading up to Christmas, 1985. (In a nice bit of synchronicity, it’s adapted by Enda Walsh, the playwright behind Murphy’s professional debut Disco Pigs in 1996.)

Played by Murphy, Bill’s deliveries take him to the nearby convent school in a soot-stained but incongruously yellow van that practically glows in this sun-starved town. Bill’s daughters and other ‘good girls’ go to school within the grounds of this high-walled fortress. It slowly dawns on him that this is also a merciless Magdalene Laundries – one of the notorious Catholic institutions run to house so-called ‘fallen women’ – overseen by Emily Watson’s terrifyingly polite Sister Mary, whose platitudes are delivered with a cold smile. 

When he discovers a terrified girl locked, shivering and despairing in a filthy outhouse, a teary Bill initially turns a blind eye but chews on her fate as he dutifully goes about his business. Later, he buys patent leather shoes for his wife (Eileen Walsh), who, like landlady at his local pub, warns him that the world is too cruel to be overly concerned with the fate of others. Especially when the nuns ‘have a finger in every pie’.

That doesn’t sit well with him, not least because he endured judgmental whispering as a boy because of his unknown father and unmarried mother. Her fate was gentler, taken in by a wealthy, farm-owning widow played with good grace, if too little screentime, by Game of Thrones matriarch Michelle Fairley in these careworn flashbacks.

It’s a profound performance by Cillian Murphy that burns with tragic urgency 

Guided by Murphy’s sometime Peaky Blinders director Tim Mielants, Small Things Like These is closer in spirit to Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl – adapted from another heartrending Keegan story – than Peter Mullan’s thematically similar The Magdalene Sisters. Seen from the outside looking in, director and writer carefully translate Bill’s unspoken ruminations by placing Murphy alone in cinematographer Frank van den Eeden’s frame, as fleeting glimpses of other lives’ troubles flit by him. When Bill does speak, his words carry weight. 

It’s a profound performance by Murphy – perhaps even more so in fewer words than Oppenheimer – as Bill’s anger burns with tragic urgency. The question lingers: will you look or look away, act or stay silent?

Small Things Like These premiered at the Berlin Film Festival

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

Cast and crew

  • Director:Tim Mielants
  • Screenwriter:Enda Walsh
  • Cast:
    • Cillian Murphy
    • Ciarán Hinds
    • Michelle Fairley
    • Clare Dunne
    • Emily Watson
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