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27 August 2023

The Woman in the Wall turns the Magdalene laundries into offensive melodrama

Ireland’s unfathomably cruel “mother and baby homes” are here just as set-dressing for a shlocky horror – as if the real story weren’t horrifying enough.

By Rachel Cooke

Thanks to my increasing fear of cows – not so long ago, relatives of mine had to be airlifted to hospital having been brutally trampled – The Woman in the Wall made me anxious from the moment it began, when a woman we’d soon know as Lorna (Ruth Wilson) could be seen lying in a rural lane, her feet bare, her body covered by only a white nightdress. A sleepwalker, she’d wandered there in the dead of the night, and now she was waking up, only to find herself surrounded by huge great milkers.

How, I wondered, had the director shot this? Was there a farmer or another kind of cow-whisperer – someone, perhaps, from an agency for theatrical cattle – standing just behind the camera, ready to act if the beasts chose to walk over, rather than around, the human bump in the road?

Not that crotchety cows are the most frightening part of the BBC’s much-trailed new drama. It’s full of horrible stuff, the spine of its plot built around the scandal of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, the last one of which, if you can believe it, only closed in 1996. (As one character puts it, “the f***ing ‘Macarena’ was in the charts”.) The crimes of the Catholic Church, however, are only the beginning for the series’ writer, Joe Murtagh, who lays on the gothic with a JCB.

To hateful priests, malevolent nuns and traumatised women, he has added a revenge plot that has so far led to three violent deaths and some unpleasantness involving a wall cavity (I’ve seen two episodes). In the fictional town of Kilkinure on Ireland’s west coast, ghostly babies can often be heard crying in the distance, characters inevitably explore disused buildings by torchlight, and only three colours exist: sludge green, maroon and brown (it’s 2015, guys, not 1915). Basically, Murtagh and his producers have thrown everything they’ve got at this, and the result is a preposterous mess.

[See also: Why I’m no longer going on hen weekends]

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Yet it’s not only a mess. It’s distasteful, too; offensive, even. That the fathomless cruelty of the laundries, where girls who were “in trouble” had their babies stolen from them, and then were made to work unpaid washing sheets, has been used to gild this Grand Guignol! As if all those things weren’t plenty horrifying enough already.

Having once interviewed her, I’m amazed that Wilson, who is smart, didn’t feel the same when she read the script – unless she just couldn’t resist the chance to play a charmless, sleepwalking loner who has been driven half-mad with grief. Not only is she able to deploy a full range of tics, twitches and crazed smiles as she walks around in the driving rain with a big axe in her hand. She also gets to do an Irish accent (not bad, to my ears).

There are some OK moments, I suppose. The conversations between Colman (Daryl McCormack), the detective who’s come up from Dublin to investigate the goings on in Kilkinure, and a local copper, Aidan Massey (Simon Delaney) – whose respect for all things nun-related remains stupidly intact – are quite funny. And it’s neat the way the old Ireland and the new rub up against one another, Lorna finding herself in the middle of a raucous hen night – cue an inflatable life-size doll – in the pub where she hopes to meet a person who claims to know what happened (spoiler alert) to her baby. But there’s also a lot of portentous cheese here: knives plunged into gaudy reproductions of Jesus Christ, conversations about a wailing banshee of local repute, thunder claps that are straight out of Poltergeist.

[See also: The Power of Parker captures the particular quirks of Nineties northern England]

In general, I would say that it isn’t wise or helpful to make a retired mother superior – Frances Tomelty, looking spiteful in a wimple – sound like Cruella de Vil (“You had to have the stomach for our kind of work,” she spits, under questioning by Colman). The point is that the barbarousness in question was once all around: both widely registered, and widely ignored.

An entire population, just about, signed off Catholicism, going to mass dutifully, and always inviting the Father to tea – until, of course, they no longer did. To make it all so caricatured, even cartoonish, is to fail fully to acknowledge its heinousness. Its horrors belonged to the everyday, not to some X-rated horror movie.

The Woman in the Wall

BBC One,
27 August, 9.05pm;
now on catch-up

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con

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