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Woman in the Wall–Imprisonment in  the Magdalene Laundries

Set up as a six-episode thriller, Woman in the Wall is based on the horrific exploitation of teenage girls and young women in “the homes for unwed mothers” in Ireland.  The scandal of the Magdalene Laundries has damaged the Catholic Church for over a century and a half.   This fictionalized account focuses on Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson of “The Affair”, “Luther”, “Saving Mr. Banks”, “Dark Materials” among many others) and her determination to find her now thirty-year old daughter who was taken from her at the Magdalene Laundries. Brutalized by Catholic nuns and forced into working in the profitable laundries, young girls like Lorna suffered major trauma without legal or social justice. 

Woman in the Wall opens with Lorna, wearing a blood-stained nightgown, in a cow pasture with a glass shard in her hand.  Brain-dazed and awakening from sleepwalking, Lorna is more feral animal than human.  The year is 2015.  The place is in Kilkinure, a small town miles from Dublin.

But Lorna is also sleepwalking through life.  As a seamstress in a modest dress shop, she hears a pregnant customer suggest she should come to a meeting for victims of the Kilkinure Magdalene Laundries.  The victims hope that the attorney who wishes to represent them will succeed in securing reparations.  But Lorna is not interested in retelling her story.  She has been gaslighted too many times to believe in any successful  outcome. And her sleepwalking is one way she reveals her trauma.

But all is not as it once was.  Victims want their voices heard.  Lorna finds a body in the wall of her apartment.  But is the dead woman real or a figment of her imagination?  Lorna randomly wakes up with no memories of where she was sleepwalking the night before.  And while sleepwalking, she is destructive. No matter how she tries, attempting  to escape or forget her past is impossible as the sleepwalking becomes ever more violent.  Intentionally a loner, her suffering cries out for a friend.  And that friend appears as Detective Colman Akande  (Daryl McCormack from Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and Bad Sisters”.)

Detective Colman is not sure whether to believe what has happened to Lorna.  Coincidentally  Colman is  investigating the murder of a local priest, Father Percy (Stephen Brennan), a longtime resident of Kilkinure. He was the   spiritual leader to many residents, including Colman as a young boy.  As the detective investigates the murder of Father Percy and the priest’s past, Colman’s young boyhood also resurfaces in a series of enigmatic flashbacks.  Uncovering his past  brings about a panic attack.

There are several plots here:  1) at least one murder, perhaps two if the woman’s body  in the wall is real; 2) the trauma of many of the adult women who continue to be silenced, while living in the town that ignored their suffering;  3) the seeking of justice when the accused is the powerful Catholic Church;  and 4) the cover-up and gaslighting by institutions chartered to protect the most vulnerable.

Memory and truth are sometimes on the opposite side of power and its unholy alliance with those supposedly holy. Woman in the Wall is best in those moments when the secrets of Kilkinure cannot be walled up any further.  It is the gray areas of the multiple plots where the tension lies, much more interesting than a typical thriller or murder mystery.    Both Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of Lorna  and Daryl McCormack’s of Colman are haunting and sympathetic.  Both physically and mentally, they have to re-experience the past they wish, above all, to forget.   

A few comments about the structure, however.  The flashbacks  as well as the hallucinations are often confusing.  While the intention is to blur the boundaries between the imagined and the real,  the visual cues could have been more evident.  Sometimes this viewer felt spun around, whiplashed.  The ending was too much of a disconnect, given that the character of Lorna is so fragile and troubled.  A more ambiguous final scene was needed to circumscribe how Lorna’s confidence in her own voice has almost been completely obliterated and that justice was never complete.

Availability:  Paramount+

Note 1: A lesser known fact:  The first American Magdalene Laundry opened in Louisville, Kentucky in 1843 with others established by the Indianapolis Convent of the Good Shepherd and St. Joseph Laundry in 1873.

Note 2: For other fictional depictions of the Magdalene Laundries, see the 2002 film, Magdalena Sisters, and the 2013 film, Philomena.   

The Catholic Church has still not compensated   the women who are part of the lawsuit involving the Magdalene Laundries.

The Irish government, in 2013, agreed to $75 million in reparations for hundreds of victims.,there%20by%20the%20Irish%20state.

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