“Small Things Like These”, Facing Up to History

In Film & Series 15 February, 2024

Claudia Moras

Claudia Moras


Small Things Like These is set in New Ross, Ireland, in 1985, where Bill Furlong (Cillian Murphy), a family man, runs a small coal and other domestic fuels business. The somber atmosphere drenched in ochres and greys conveyed by the excellent cinematography of Frank van den Eeden (Close, 2022) immerses us in a society secularly controlled by the Catholic church, where silence is the law regarding the activities of the religious. The infamous Magdalene laundries, the convents for young girls who do not conform to the rigid customs, especially for getting pregnant out of wedlock, have been made into a film (The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan, 2002), and their horror is a well-known fact of modern times. However, for too long fear and tradition gripped a society unable to adapt to the times and respond adequately to women’s lack of rights. Small Things Like These, produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cillian Murphy, among others, is about what it meant in the 1980s to have the courage to confront that situation and break the pact of silence, to stop being passively complicit in the abuse of thousands of young women.

Premiering in competition as the opening film of the 74th Berlinale, the film directed by Tim Mielants was presented at a press conference by its stars (this is the fifth time the Irish actor has participated in the Berlinale), director and screenwriter, who were accompanied by Matt Damon. The genesis of the film originated when Murphy read the book of the same title published in 2021 by Claire Keegan, author of Foster —on which his screenplay for The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad, 2022) was based. Enda Walsh (Hunger, Steve McQueen, 2008) collaborated with her to write the script, which was directed by someone with whom Cillian Murphy has good experience of collaboration and to whom he had been proposing a new project for some time, as he is the director of Peaky Blinders. The actor became almost obsessed with the book and took advantage of Oppenheimer‘s filming to get Damon to read it, finally agreeing to produce the film, as he confessed to the audience.

Small Things Like These

Cillian Murphy and Tim Mielants during the shooting of Small Things Like These. Photo: Shane O’Connor.

Murphy’s involvement in Irish history has made this project a very personal goal, as this particular episode has taken its toll on more than one generation. Guilt, shame, and the inability to deal with mental health in such a repressive context were issues that needed to be brought to the screen. The actor felt that to get to the heart of the matter it was necessary to structure that pain and categorize it as traumatic, rather than appropriate it. The adaptation of the book breaks out of the confines of the book to show the development of the real events with a poetic touch, always keeping the self in mind, in the internal manifestation of the main character’s pain. On the other hand, Alan Moloney, another of the producers of Small Things Like These, admitted to feeling great responsibility for the story, as this process of healing in Ireland is very close to the generation of the eighties and nineties, and the actress Emily Watson, who plays the superior of the convent where the young women are held against their will, doing slave labor, expressed herself in the same sense.

Matt Damon, who has a long experience in production, confessed that Making a good movie requires a lot of trust in the partners and how the relationship is built. It is about how you structure a movie and how the film can be made. The exercise is also part of the trust but trusting the audience to care about cinema. I’m grateful to bring a movie like this. Bill Furlong’s character is taciturn, unexpressive, with a hidden ancient pain, but also with great determination and commitment. As for the construction of the character and his approach, Cillian Murphy, stated that He is not a Hero is a man that is going through a breakdown. Nothing is decided and nothing is planned. He’s feeling the repressed grief and the stuff that is happening in the community. Is not a hero; in the end, everyone has a different opinion of what has happened. People can decide what they want. Regarding his character, he wondered if Is there a breaking point between living my life and not breaking the line or if I can not stand the suffering of this other person. It all starts with the human spirit and how everything affects the main character in an environment filled with women, listening to your instinct.

Mielants’ contribution, based on Keegan’s work, offers a different perspective to those already known, since it is not the events themselves that are recounted – even the circumstances of the girls’ imprisonment are taken for granted – nor does it linger on the description of their lives, but rather the repercussions they have on the conscience of a good person, lucid enough to overcome the fear of confrontation, not only with the ruling class but also with his own family and neighbors. Cillian Murphy plays Furlong with his usual intensity, hermetically sealed —with symbolic repetitive actions, such as the thorough washing of his charcoal worker’s hands— leaving the viewer alone with flashbacks, not too explicit either, to reconstruct the reasons for his courage and trauma.

Emily Watson has been awarded the Silver Bear for Best Supporting Actress at the 74th Berlin Film Festival for her portrayal of Sister Mary.

Information was updated on 24 February 2024.

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small things like theseEmily WatsonCillian MurphyMatt Damon74th Berlinale

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