Small Things Like These review: Less is more as Cillian Murphy excels with minimalist turn

Oscar-tipped actor's contained performance is triumphant in adaptation of Claire Keegan's gripping novel

Cillian Murphy plays a troubled coal supplier who makes a series of shocking discoveries in 1980s Ireland. Photo: Artists Equity
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It’s all in the eyes in Small Things Like These, the latest film starring Irish actor Cillian Murphy, which opened this year’s Berlin Film Festival on Thursday.

Murphy, who is one of the favourites to take home the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, dials it right down here for a true minimalist performance. Directed by Tim Mielants, the camera spends much of its time staring into his face, drilling into those eyes, studying those worry lines.

Set in 1980s Ireland, Murphy plays Bill Furlong, who runs a coal business, supplying the area of County Wexford with fuel. “You’ve always been soft-hearted,” chides his wife Eileen (Eileen Walsh), discovering that he gave some loose change to a boy he met on the road. And it’s true. A father of five girls, Bill is a quiet, introspective soul, weighed down by past traumas that gradually come to the surface of this delicately etched drama.

Adapted from the 2020 book by Claire Keegan, the script comes courtesy of playwright Enda Walsh, who wrote Steve McQueen’s Hunger and also has a long-standing relationship with Murphy. In 2001, Murphy starred in the film adaptation of Walsh’s Disco Pigs, a movie that came to Berlin and helped launch the actor’s career. Now they’re reunited with Murphy on board as producer (Hollywood's Matt Damon is also on producing duties).

Taking place across a few days over Christmas, the film subtly evokes Bill’s pain. He’s frequently seen at the sink, removing the coal dust from his hands, scrubbing vigorously with a brush as if he’s trying to wash away the sins of the flesh. Beneath the story is a nod to the Magdalene Laundries, the largely Roman Catholic institutions where "fallen women" were housed, exploited and abused. When Bill delivers to one such operation, he finds a young dishevelled girl, locked in a coal shed.

It leads to one of the film’s finest scenes, as Bill meets the tight-lipped Mother Superior (Emily Watson), whose nature leaves him almost cowed in her presence. Without saying much – for this is a film that says very little on the surface – Bill almost looks like a little boy again. As if to drive home the point, Mielants flashes back to his difficult childhood. “If you want to get on in, there are things you have to ignore,” says Eileen, but Bill seems increasingly unable to leave behind the scars of the past.

Never the most grandstanding of actors, Murphy offers an incredibly contained performance here. Sitting in a barber’s chair, tears roll down his cheeks as memories swirl. But eventually, there will come a moment of action that for Bill represents a titanic evolution. Mielants, the Belgian-born filmmaker who previously worked with Murphy on the BBC show Peaky Blinders, understands innately that this is a film where less is more. Small things count for a lot.

Small Things Like These

Director: Tim Mielants
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Watson, Eileen Walsh
Rating: 4/5

Mielants beautifully evokes 1980s Ireland, capturing the overcast brickwork and the dankness of the nighttime streets, lit up by barely adequate lampposts. Certainly, it appears to reflect the gloom that has enveloped Bill’s mind, but Mielants never lets it become overly symbolic.

True, the film sometimes veers towards an obsession with poverty – not least when Bill glimpses a barefoot child lapping from a bowl in the street. But it’s not enough to overbalance what is a highly controlled piece of work. Only once or twice do we glimpse signposts to the era – the cartoon DangerMouse appears on a TV – but there’s something timeless about a story that sees its characters locked in a spiral of pain.

Small Things Like These is expected to be released in cinemas later this year, date TBC

Updated: February 16, 2024, 3:03 PM
Small Things Like These

Director: Tim Mielants
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Watson, Eileen Walsh
Rating: 4/5