Saturday, February 17, 2024

Cillian Murphy calls Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries scandal a ‘collective trauma’

 Small Things Like These: Cillian Murphy to star in and produce an  adaptation of Claire Keegan's acclaimed novel - IMDb

Learning about the abuses of the church in the “dysfunctional Christian society” of 1980s Ireland amounted to a “collective trauma” that has still not been fully processed, actor Cillian Murphy said as a new film set against the backdrop of the Magdalene Laundries scandal premiered at the Berlin film festival.

In Small Things Like These, the Oppenheimer star plays Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man who accidentally becomes aware of abuse happening at the local convent in New Ross, southwest County Wexford, Ireland.

As a punishment for having sex outside of marriage, women in Ireland were for more than two centuries sent to restrictive church-run workhouses, where they carried out agonising unpaid labour and were shut off from society against their will. The Magdalene Laundries system went unchallenged until 1993, when unmarked graves containing remains of 155 women were discovered in the backyard of one of the institutions.

“I do think that it was a collective trauma, particularly for people of a certain age,” Murphy said about the impact of the revelations, at a press conference on the eve of the film’s world premiere. “I think that we’re still processing that.”

Directed by Belgian film-maker Tim Mielants, Small Things Like These is based on the short novel of the same name by Claire Keegan, which was a bestseller in Ireland and beyond when it was published in 2020. “It seemed like everybody read it,” said Murphy, adding that art could be a useful “balm for that wound”.

“I think the irony of the book is that it’s a Christian man trying to act Christian in a dysfunctional Christian society. And it asks a lot of questions about publicity and silence and shame, all of those things. But I really don’t think the duty of art is to answer those questions, it’s to talk to them. And maybe it’s easier to absorb than an academic report, or a political report.”

The film, which is the first Irish production to open the Berlin film festival, was adapted for screen by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, and produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Artists Equity studio.

“I was out in the New Mexican desert with Cillian. I was sitting across from him watching what he was doing in Oppenheimer,” Damon said during a press conference in Berlin. “I had already called Ben and told him what I was witnessing and how incredible it was. A couple of days later Cillian told me, ‘I have my next movie I really want to do.’ And I said, ‘We are starting a studio. Can we be a part of it?’”

Murphy stars in the film alongside Emily Watson, Michelle Fairley and Eileen Walsh, the last of whom also acted in Peter Mullan’s 2002 drama The Magdalene Sisters, about the same abuse scandal.