Cillian Murphy shoulders a society’s shame in Berlinale opener

By Thomson Reuters Feb 15, 2024 | 2:13 PM

By Thomas Escritt and Miranda Murray

BERLIN (Reuters) – Hauling coals against a leaden sky, Cillian Murphy opened the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday with “Small Things Like These”, in which the “Oppenheimer” star portrays a man sagging under the twin burdens of a traumatic childhood and an oppressive present.

Set in Catholic Ireland in the 1980s and based on Claire Keegan’s novel of the same name, the film casts Murphy as a coal merchant father consumed by guilt and indecision over whether to save a girl locked up in a “Magdalene laundry” run by nuns.

The first Irish film in contention for the festival’s coveted Golden Bear since 2017, Belgian director Tim Mielants’ “Small Things” seeks to spotlight Ireland’s recent traumatic history that some have tried to bury, Murphy told reporters.

“It was a collective trauma for people of a certain age and I do think they were still processing that,” he said.

“The irony of the book is that it’s a Christian man trying to do a Christian act in a dysfunctional Christian society,” said Murphy, who has an Oscar nomination for “Oppenheimer”.

Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, the last of which shut down in 1996, were workhouses for women accused of immorality – often for falling pregnant out of wedlock. Inmates were forced to toil as washerwomen in slave-like conditions for the benefit of a religious order that kept them far from the eyes of a guilt-ridden society.

Murphy’s portrayal of an adult bent double by depression reminds the audience that acts of heroism can be born of despair as well as from a position of strength.

“To get on in this life, there are things you have to ignore”: his wife, played by Eileen Walsh, conveys in a single sentence the crushing weight of society’s shameful consensus.

The film reveals that a past thought long buried is closer than it seems: The dark streets of Wexford evoke the 1950s, only the strains of The Human League playing from a radio remind the viewer that “Small Things Like These” is set in 1985.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Miranda Murray; Editing by Ros Russell)