The Woman in the Wall review: Ireland's great shame laid bare in genre-hopping thriller
The ambitious new BBC drama shines a spotlight on the harrowing Magdalene Laundries. ***EPISODE 1 SPOILERS AHEAD***
Only 1 episode was made available for review. Episode 1 spoilers ahead.
A woman dressed in white waking in the middle of a country road surrounded by cows sounds like the start of a bad joke, but there's nothing funny about Lorna Brady's predicament in The Woman in the Wall.
The seamstress, played by Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair, His Dark Materials), has been sleepwalking – we later learn that it's not her first time – and after waking up with several cows gawking at her, she must now trudge back to her home in the fictional town of Kilkinure, West Ireland, while the local busybodies do some gawking of their own as they gossip about her latest escapade.
Everyone knows everyone 'round here, which means nothing goes unseen.
Lorna's plight has escalated – this time she has discovered blood on her nightdress and a shard of glass lodged in the heel of her hand – which prompts her to upgrade her home security.
"This should keep the oddballs out," says the cashier, scanning the heavy duty door bolt.
"How about keeping one in," she replies, matter-of-factly.
It's an unsettling opening – what on earth did she get up to last night? – and one that immediately draws you in. But the ambitious new BBC drama isn't solely concerned with entertaining its viewership, although it does plenty of that.
Writer Joe Murtagh (Calm with Horses, Gangs of London) is shining a spotlight on the Magdalene Laundries, the religious-run institutions in Ireland where "fallen women", as they were known – that's pregnant and "promiscuous" teenage girls, those who were unmarried and victims of abuse – were sent to live and work in harrowing conditions to atone for their "sins".
As for the young men who were part of their stories... well, there's no mention of them, which tells you all you need to know about the culture at that time.
It's now 2015 and an official investigation has been opened into Ireland's mother and baby homes, the last of which closed down in the late '90s. Countless women had their babies taken from them while incarcerated – the total number is still unknown to this day – one of whom was Lorna.
It's a challenging role, and while Wilson's career has yet to see her deliver a dud performance, this will surely go down as one of her finest. Lorna wears a tough-as-old-boots exterior but she's carrying an ocean of pain inside her, which seeps through when the past bubbles to the fore, a tricky dance which Wilson navigates with ease.
This isn't the first time the laundries, which many viewers will still be unfamiliar with, particularly those outside of Ireland, have caught the attention of the visual arts, with Philomena and The Magdalene Sisters both tackling the country's great shame. But The Woman in the Wall takes a different approach tonally.
While the red-raw anguish and anger of Lorna and the other women remains front and centre, the narrative never feels overwhelmed by the weight of their loss, courtesy of a genre-hopping style that cycles through psychological thriller, comedy, horror and murder mystery.
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As a result, The Woman in the Wall is a Trojan Horse of sorts, likely to attract a new crowd who may have turned off if Murtagh had gone down the traditional drama route.
Halfway through we meet Detective Colman Akande, played by Daryl McCormack (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Bad Sisters), who is heading up the investigation into the murder of a local priest.
Colman had a close bond with Father Percy, which raises interesting questions about how his arc will develop over the course of the series, as he uncovers what his mentor was responsible for.
That "good man", as he describes him, personally dragged Lorna to the laundry and oversaw the removal of her child, which makes her a prime suspect. But she's not the only person with a vendetta against him, which is a nightmare for the investigating team, but makes delicious viewing for us.
Further tension also arises from Sergeant Aiden Massey's (Simon Delaney) unwillingness to rock the boat in his "very boring town", which could be well-meaning, or an example of yet another cog in the machine attempting to keep the past buried.
But when the green Triumph belonging to the dead priest is blown up by Lorna during another bout of sleepwalking (again, not the start of a bad joke) in which shades of Luther's Alice Morgan creep in, he quickly realises that this case isn't going anywhere fast.
There's also the titular woman in the wall, who was first discovered by Lorna inside her home, who she may or may not have killed along with the priest.
She really is having the mother of all bad days....
In the lead up to that bone-chilling final scene, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Lorna was going to go all American psycho on us and hack the deceased's body into chunks.
Thankfully, we were spared that – Murtagh knows exactly when to pull back, and with finesse – but with five more episodes to go, further horrors undoubtedly await in this atmospheric piece that is one of the year's most daring and best.
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