A star rating of 4 out of 5.

Cillian Murphy headlines Small Things Like These, an understated drama that’s miniature in scale but not ambition.


Opening the Berlin Film Festival, it arrives just weeks before Murphy heads to the Academy Awards to compete for his first Oscar – for his role in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

The two films couldn’t be more different, despite both being anchored by the consummate Murphy’s un-showy presence.

Set in 1985, he plays Bill Furlong, who runs a small coal business in County Wicklow, Ireland. Married to Eileen (Eileen Walsh), he’s a father of five daughters – the quiet one in this all-female household.

Set over Christmastime, his children are naturally excitable, but emotions are swelling inside Bill. When one of his offspring asks what he used to get for Christmas, he replies that he once got a jigsaw. Once. It's a heartbreaking admission, one that allows the film to flash back to a sparse childhood.

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At one point, we see the young Bill given a hot water bottle as a present; the disappointment etched into his face speaks volumes.

When his wife asks him what he’d like, he suggests David Copperfield, the classic Charles Dickens novel. And indeed, there is something distinctly Dickensian about this story, where poverty seems to exist on every street corner. Quite literally, in one scene, where Bill sees a small barefoot child lapping from a bowl in the road like an animal.

Adapted from the 2020 novel by Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These really is a character study, as Bill’s childhood trauma begins to catch up with him.

The film’s director, Tim Mielants, who previously filmed Murphy in several episodes of BBC show Peaky Blinders, misses no opportunity to train the lens on Murphy’s face, notably when he mournfully stares out of a rain-lashed window. Shots like these speak volumes of his under-the-surface turmoil.

The film really takes hold when Bill delivers coal to the local convent, run by Sister Mary (Emily Watson, who expertly essays a servant of God you simply wouldn’t want to cross).

Bill encounters a young girl named Sarah (Zara Devlin), who has been locked in the convent’s coal shed, and is in desperate need of help. Without ever really explicitly detailing it, the film alludes to the ‘Magdalene laundries’, Catholic institutions that became notorious for exploiting women who were admitted there, often simply because they had fallen pregnant out of wedlock.

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It’s not the first time this has been exposed on film, notably in Peter Mullan’s 2002 Golden Lion-winning film The Magdalene Sisters. But while that was a full and frank look at this horrifying practice, Mielants’s movie is deliberately more subtle.

Gradually, we learn that Bill was the son of an unwed teenage mother who escaped the laundries, making his sympathy towards Sarah understandable. Rarely, though, does the film slip into melodrama; expect no grandstanding from Murphy or his co-stars here.

Scripted by playwright Enda Walsh (whose play Disco Pigs was previously adapted on screen, and gave Murphy an early, show-stopping role), Small Things Like These really scores highly in the way it’s been shot.

Mielants and his cinematographer Frank van den Eeden beautifully capture rural Ireland in the mid-'80s, in a way that suggests how little has changed since Bill was a boy in the 1950s.

With much of the film shot around dusk or nighttime, even the sight of carol singers in the street comes with an eerie tint.

At the heart, of course, is Murphy, who gives a performance of great stillness and control. It’s unlikely to catch Hollywood’s eye in the way Oppenheimer has, but it’s another reminder of what a fine and nuanced actor he is.

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