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BERLINALE 2024 Competition

Review: Small Things Like These


- BERLINALE 2024: Based on Claire Keegan’s book of the same name, the third feature by Belgian director Tim Mielants is a portrait of a small town troubled by indifference

Review: Small Things Like These
Cillian Murphy in Small Things Like These

Small-town Ireland, the 1980s: a nun wrestles a teenage girl into a nondescript door as she shrieks for her life – “Daddy! Daddy!” Just metres away, a local coalman watches this horrifying scene from the shadows, his body shrouded in darkness and his coal-splotched face a useful disguise. Frozen in place, the man knows that he must do something, he must – his eyes tell all as the frame closes in on his grimy visage.

This is Belgian director Tim Mielants’ first truly slap-to-the-face moment in his third feature, Small Things Like These [+see also:
film profile
, which has just enjoyed its premiere at the Berlinale Palast as the festival’s opening film, playing in the Competition section. Mielants, who has also made his name directing for television, reunites with Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy in the actor’s native Ireland. Murphy also comes full circle with Small Things Like These screenwriter Enda Walsh – he made his professional debut in one of Walsh’s plays and later starred in its 2001 screen adaptation of the same name, Disco Pigs.

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Coalman Bill Furlong gets up at the crack of dawn to run his business, lugs bagfuls of fuel to local establishments, and gets home late to scrub his hands of grime and eat dinner with his wife and five girls — lather, rinse, repeat. The care he takes in an encounter with a local boy breaks the routine and first reveals Bill’s moral foundation, but his wife, Eileen (Eileen Walsh), encourages him to mind his own business. Similarly, after witnessing a girl (Jessie Buckley doppelgänger Zara Devlin) being hustled into the nearby convent, screaming for her father, Bill’s full ethical dilemma is formed: to do something or not in small-town Ireland, where passivity is expected but is ultimately more sinister than scandal.

Half-mystery, half-character study, Mielants’ newest film succeeds more in the former than the latter, faltering as perhaps an overly faithful adaptation of Claire Keegan's Booker Prize-shortlisted novel of the same name. A similar fate befalls that of Eileen by William Oldroyd – with the novel also shortlisted for the Booker Prize but co-adapted by the original author, Ottessa Moshfegh – although Small Things Like These can’t seem to carry its weight in intrigue.

Through long panning and tracking shots, Mielants paints Bill in motion, walking and moving purposefully amidst a town that would rather stay still and silent. In this way, the director effectively establishes Bill’s repetitive, gruelling routine as the family patriarch. But Small Things Like These falters much on the basis of its screenplay, which places unnecessary emphasis on bland flashbacks to our protagonist’s childhood, where Christmas is haunted by memories of loss and disappointment that fail to add substance to the film’s tragic themes.

The difficult moments that puncture Bill’s daily life are propped up on a skeleton frame of close-ups on the (always-effective) harrowed eyes of Murphy, but it’s not enough to fill in the emotional blanks. However, a blistering performance by Emily Watson as Sister Mary in the second half heightens the ferocity of the film’s looming central issue: that of Ireland’s infamous Magdalene laundries, also known as Magdalene asylums for “fallen women” then forced to work inside. Senjan Jansen’s floating orchestral theme and sound design – where the inner workings of the convent clink like the balls and chains of a prison – complete this portrait of a small town troubled by indifference.

Small Things Like These is a co-production between Ireland’s Big Things Films and Belgium’s Wilder Content, with FilmNation in charge of international sales.

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Photogallery 15/02/2024: Berlinale 2024 - Small Things Like These

27 pictures available. Swipe left or right to see them all.

Alan Moloney, Catherine Magee, Cillian Murphy, Drew Vinton, Eileen Walsh, Emily Watson, Matt Damon, Tim Mielants, Zara Devlin
© 2024 Dario Caruso for Cineuropa -,, Dario Caruso

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