The opening film of the Berlinale comes directly from Ireland: Tim Mielants’s Small Things Like These, based on a screenplay by Irish playwright Enda Walsh on the 2021 novel of the same name by Irish writer Claire Keegan. The movie tells the story of a wide-eyed, man of few words, Bill Furlong (Cillian Murphy, who won the Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Academy Award for Nolan’s Oppenheimer) a coal trader who in the Christmas period of 1985 discovers shocking secrets kept in the Dublin convent: the Magdalene Laundries. A Women’s institute run by nuns belonging to various orders of the Church Catholic church in operation from 1765 until 1996 which welcomed girls who were orphans or deemed immoral because their conduct was considered sinful or in contrast with the prejudices of society of the time, to reform them. Women were subjected to a life regime very rigid, worker, forced to work at a grueling pace and without any pay. A story of universal scope, small and large, which tells of kindness towards the most fragile, of the will to oppose injustices, conveyed through small, simple but unforgettable characters.
“In October there were yellow trees. Then the clocks went back the hour and the long November winds came in and blew, and stripped the trees bare. In the town of New Ross, chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings before dispersing along the quays, and soon the River Barrow, dark as stout, swelled up with rain.” This is how Claire Keegan’s book begins, a historical fiction novel published in 2021. In 2022, the book won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Booker Prize. At the center of the movie we have Cillian Murphy who reunites with the Belgian filmmaker Tim Mielants. After their television efforts with Peaky Blinders, the two have long been looking for a project to create together. Murphy’s wife, the visual artist Yvonne McGuinness recommended him an adaptation of Keegan’s work. Eventually, he made his fortune with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Artists Equity, strongly interested in the project. In the cast, in addition to Murphy (who also appears as a producer), Ciarán Hinds, Emily Watson, Eileen Walsh, Michelle Fairley, Joanne Crawford, Clare Dunne and Ian O’Reilly.
The Magdalene Laundries, also known as Magdalene asylums, were institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They were run ostensibly to house “fallen women”, an estimated 30,000 of whom were confined in these institutions in Ireland. In 1993, unmarked graves of 155 women were uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries. A formal state apology was issued and a compensation scheme for survivors was set up by the Irish Government, which by 2022 had paid out €32.8 million to 814 survivors. In 2002, The Magdalene Sisters, a film by Peter Mullan, was based on four young women incarcerated in a Dublin Magdalen Laundry from 1964 to 1968. Joni Mitchell recorded The Magdalene Laundries, a song about the atrocities for her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo.
- VIDEO | Here’s Joni Mitchell’s The Magdalene Laundries: