Opening nights at major festivals often lean towards the showier end of the spectrum, reaching for films with starry, red carpet-friendly casts and headline-grabbing premises to kick off proceedings in flashy style. The past two Berlinales boasted fun but forgettable openers — Rebecca Miller’s “She Came To Me” and Francois Ozon’s “Peter von Kant” — which is why it’s a pleasant surprise that this year’s Berlinale Opening Night offers something altogether subtler, a genuinely profound low-key gem which will be remembered long after the champagne and sequins have been swept away. 

On the surface, “Small Things Like These,” produced by and starring the freshly Oscar-nominated Cillian Murphy (and with “Oppenheimer” co-star Matt Damon also on board as producer) fits the Opening Night brief well. In reality, however, this is a surprisingly understated film, dour and difficult to watch in places, and firmly rooted in Irish culture and history.

Starring Murphy, Eileen Walsh, and Michelle Fairley, and adapted by playwright Enda Walsh (“Disco Pigs,” “Hunger”) from Claire Keegan’s novella of the same name, “Small Things Like These” is a showcase of exceptional Irish talent, albeit with a Belgian, Tim Mielants (“Peaky Blinders,” “Patrick”) in the director’s chair.

Keegan, who also wrote the short story behind the Oscar-nominated Irish language feature “The Quiet Girl,” is widely celebrated for her ability to wring deep meaning from her sparse, deceptively light prose. A key strength of “Small Things Like These” lies in Walsh and Mielants’ intelligent translation of Keegan’s bare bones style to the screen. That sensitivity to the source material elevates the film beyond straightforward social drama or kitchen sink miserabilism, to something more philosophical and resonant. 

It’s December 1985, although in New Ross, a small harbor town in Southeast Ireland, it still feels likes the 1950s. Bill Furlong (Murphy) is a coal delivery man, who rises before dawn each day to load his van and drop off supplies to nearby farms and businesses. At night, he heads home to his wife Eileen (Walsh) and their five daughters, where, after scrubbing the dirt methodically from his hands, he rejoins his lively family to play kindly but distant father figure, receding into the background in a terrace full of sparky, sparring women.

Bill is deeply introverted, but he is also clearly a good man, loved by his family and well-liked by his neighbors despite his social awkwardness. Yet there is something unresolved about Bill’s past, a trauma which seems to have unexpectedly resurfaced in middle age. In the build up to Christmas, Bill is working harder than ever, yet struggling with a lingering detachment; there is a sense that he is going through the motions, both at work and at home. Then one day, while delivering to the local convent, Bill accidentally witnesses a dramatic scene: a young woman being dragged inside a convent against her will. That chance encounter is the first in a series which will eventually bring Bill inside the convent walls and face-to-face with one of Ireland’s most traumatic historical episodes.

The Magdelene Laundries, asylums run by the Catholic church in which “fallen women” were housed in abusive workhouse conditions, have been covered in film before, most notably by Peter Mullen in 2002’s “The Magdelene Sisters.” However, what differentiates “Small Things Like These” from other on-screen accounts is the way that it shifts the focus away from the women victims and toward the bystanders who stood by and ignored the suffering that was happening right on their doorstep. When first confronted with evidence of abuse taking place at the convent, Bill is clearly horrified, but he is not surprised. He attempts, shakily, to raise the subject with his wife but she is dismissive. “It’s none of our business,”  Eileen tells him. “What do we have to answer for?”

Eileen’s attitude will prove to be widespread. As Bill’s unease with the convent begins to become more known, he faces increasing, coded warnings against speaking out. Part of the film’s shocking power lies in the way it demonstrates the role women play in upholding society’s punishing patriarchal standards. Bill lives in a woman-dominated world, barely interacting with any men, yet it’s these women — from the nuns themselves, to Eileen, to a pub landlady — who repeatedly warn him of the potential costs of interfering with something that is “none of our business.” 

The stakes of speaking out for Bill within this small town context are also made clear through Mielants’ intelligent compositions. Shooting on location in County Wexford, the director and his cinematographer Frank van den Eeden makes brilliant use of this real life setting to capture the cosiness and claustrophobia of a small town where everyone knows each other. The film’s opening shots offer a quiet montage of the town, a glimpse of the cobbled streets, the damp rooftops and, of course, the spires of the church, looming over everything.

Early on, a clever circular panning shot captures the span of the small high street, where almost all New Ross’ social activities — pub visits, Christmas carol concerts, shopping — take place. Through rooting the viewer firmly in the town from early on, Mielants makes clear the smallness of Bill’s world, and demonstrates how entrenched the church is in every aspect of local life, including the local school attended by Bill’s daughters. To speak out would alienate Bill from his neighbors, ruin his business, and derail his children’s education. The stakes here are brutally high.

Thanks to those same stakes, “Small Things Like These” is also an unexpectedly tense film. That tension can be felt most powerfully in scenes set within the convent, which sometimes tip over into a kind of gothic horror. In one pivotal sequence, Bill discovers a young woman locked in the freezing coal shed, shivering, dirty, and abject, at the crack of dawn. He returns her to the convent, where he is led through echoey corridors by the Mother Superior (Emily Watson), who forces him to sit down for tea and fruitcake, before subjecting him to a series of thinly veiled threats. The contrast between the Mother Superior’s cozy firelit office and the unnerving subtext of the conversation would be blackly comic (has anyone ever written a Christmas card with quite so much menace?), if it wasn’t so chilling. 

As this gripping scene demonstrates, Walsh’s understated writing, full of implied meaning and unspoken truths, depends on unusually sensitive acting. Supporting performances throughout are strong — Watson is reliably excellent as Sister Mary, part-benevolent nun, part-Mafiosa Matriarch, and Walsh puts in a lovely performance as Bill’s somewhat exasperated wife, twinkly but hard-edged — but this is absolutely Murphy’s film.  

Murphy has proven many times before his ability to hold something burning and unknowable behind the eyes — the ever-simmering violence of Tommy Shelby; the burdensome genius of Robert Oppenheimer — and here he once again channels that ability to convey the deep empathy that lies behind Bill’s taciturn exterior. A passive protagonist can drive a viewer to frustration, but Murphy projects just enough through those icy blue eyes to allow us to follow his character’s gradual dawning comprehension, an understanding which is never verbalised but only felt, seen in the tiniest ripples as they cross Bill’s otherwise placid face. 

“Small Things Like These” is not without its missteps. Flashback sequences, which reflect on Bill’s childhood in the 1950s to reveal the origins of the adult Bill’s unusual “soft-heartedness” (in the slightly scathing words of Eileen) are slightly underpowered, and can’t match the intensity of the main action. These sequences do serve a narrative purpose, but the revelation they hinge on feels underwhelming and obvious in contrast to the subtler unravelling of revelations which make up the arc of the main plot. The smallness of the world Mielants conjures is effective thematically, but it does also lead in places to repetition, even a little cabin fever as the film progresses. Yet these reservations are more than outweighed by the power of the performances, and by the deeply satisfying experience of watching the slow awakening of Bill’s dawning conscience, which eventually leads to a beautifully handled conclusion. 

Part of the power of “Small Things Like These” lies in its Trojan horse nature. This is a political allegory disguised as a character study, a reflection on national guilt and moral complicity, wrapped inside the experiences of one man, in one small town, standing in for the whole of Ireland, and possibly the world. Given the current context — particularly the furious ongoing debate about institutional silence in the face of ongoing atrocities in Gaza — the questions the film raises about the moral implications of speaking out feel as live as ever.

When do we speak up, and when do we stay silent? In the end, Bill makes his decision — and we, as the audience, are left to make our own.

Grade: A-

“Small Things Like These” premiered at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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