From the 18th century right up to the eve of the new millennium, convents in Ireland, run by the Roman Catholic church, took in wayward girls, offering their families the promise of bed, board and an education. In fact, they were put to hard labour in for-profit laundries and forced to give up their babies. It is a dark chapter of Irish history, and one that provides the backdrop to the new BBC six-part thriller, The Woman in the Wall.
Ruth Wilson is Lorna, a seamstress in Blackrock, a suburban part of Dublin that feels more like a seaside village. Lorna is quiet and apparently fragile. She suffers from destructive sleepwalking and is carrying the heavy burden of her experiences at the Kilkinure convent, one of the notorious laundries. There, Lorna and the other young “fallen women” endured backbreaking work and were forcibly separated from their newborns. “Monstra Te Esse Matrem” reads the convent’s Latin motto. “Show thyself a mother,” translates the aged but intransigent Sister (Frances Tomelty).
But the women of Blackrock who spent time in the convent were not afforded that opportunity. And, when a priest who delivered services there is found battered to death, suspicion falls on a support group for survivors. Dublin-based detective Colman Akande (Bad Sisters’ Daryl McCormack) is brought in to oversee the investigation, teaming up with local sergeant Massey (Simon Delaney). “They said they were sending a lad from Dublin,” the jovial Massey says, introducing himself to the sickeningly handsome detective, “not one of the Backstreet Boys!” It is not long before their suspicions fall on Lorna, whose erratic behaviour has gone further off the rails after discovering a second corpse.
There are a few different shows going on here. A cop series where a slick city detective has to link up with a rural subordinate (think Broadchurch, The Bridge, even Life on Mars). A historical drama about church abuses. And a schlocky revenge thriller that borders, at times, on horror. Now there are many great shows that successfully merge genres – think, for example, of The White Lotus’s acclaimed whodunnit/relationship drama/dark satire trifle – but it’s a difficult act to balance. And The Woman in the Wall is messy: as Lorna’s psyche frays, the narrative flits around like a fly banging against the glass. Rather than rewarding attentive viewing, it punishes those who are trying to keep a grip on proceedings.
The subject of the Magdalene laundries and Ireland’s reckoning with this trauma from its recent past has been extensively covered on the big screen. From Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters to Stephen Frears’s Oscar-nominated Philomena (as well as a strange, found footage horror movie, The Devil’s Doorway), these injustices of the past have already received a cinematic airing. The Woman in the Wall brings this to the small screen and infuses it with genre concerns. For some, this will make the story more watchable – less gruelling – but for others the introduction of cliché and the imposition of a murder mystery will feel crass. There are, after all, scenes involving somnabulatory axe-wielding, spooky messages scrawled on walls and a suicide that happens just before that character can reveal crucial information.
But this tendency towards melodrama is offset by a fine central performance from Ruth Wilson (who sounds, close your eyes, exactly like Andrew Scott) and a raw portrayal of the inescapability of the past. “There’s no earthly justice for what they did to us in that place,” hisses firebrand Amy (Hilda Fay) and the show itself is filled with the same righteous anger. At its best, this makes The Woman in the Wall candid and humane, though occasionally it strays into didactic and expository territory. “I want this taught in the Irish curriculum,” says do-gooder Niamh (Motherland’s Philippa Dunne). “I want a day in your honour.”
In the end, The Woman in the Wall is never able to quite overcome the fragmentary, shape-shifting nature of its narrative. The combination of a murder investigation, on one hand, and the Catholic establishment on trial, on the other, could be an effective one. But creator Joe Murtagh and director Harry Wootliff can’t quite stick the landing. The result relies too often on pained expressions, distorted flashbacks, and cop drama tropes to really do this story justice.
‘The Woman in the Wall’ is on BBC One and iPlayer