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Ruth Wilson’s Striking Performance in ‘The Woman in the Wall’ Doesn’t Make Up for the Gothic’s Dense Narrative: TV Review

Created by Joe Murtagh, a BAFTA Award nominee for the 2019 film “Calm With Horses,” Showtime’s “The Woman in the Wall” opens in the dreary fictional town of Kilkinure, Ireland, in 2015. As Clare Harner’s infamous poem “Immortality” echoes in the background, a woman dressed in a stark white nightgown awakens in the middle of the road.

Passing a gang of cows and some nosey neighbors on her barefoot walk back toward town, it’s clear Lorna Brady (Ruth Wilson) is no stranger to sleepwalking. Abrasive and aggressive, with a barely contained rage, despite her odd morning, Lorna attempts to go on with her day as planned. After handling an unsettling leak in her home, she heads to her job as a seamstress. However, a note left for her regarding the whereabouts of her long-lost daughter sets her on an unexpected path. It’s a journey that will uncover decades of misdeeds and what we would now call child trafficking, and force Lorna to attend to the random appearance of a corpse in her home.

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Miles away in Dublin, Detective Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) finds himself investigating the murder of his childhood priest, Father Percy Sheehan (Stephen Brennan). His quest to determine who might have wanted to harm a beloved clergy member leads him right to Kilkinure and a convent that previously housed unwed mothers. It’s the very same mother/baby home Lorna was forced into as a pregnant 15-year-old.

To understand “The Woman in the Wall,” one must know the history of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. Run by the Catholic Church from the 18th century until the late 1990s, these institutions were initially for sex workers and later for “immoral women.” These women were used for their free labor to do horrific and break-backing laundry work. Male control of women’s bodies has been a stain on humanity through the centuries, and for pregnant women who ended up in the laundries, their babies were often taken without consent. Desperate to find out what happened to her stolen baby despite losing time and her faculties due to sleepwalking, Lorna becomes the main suspect in Detective Akande’s investigation. It’s a genuinely inconvenient place for her to be, especially since she is stowing a body in her living room wall.

Murtagh uses horror elements to drive the story, but considering the very real terrors Lorna and the other women living in the Kilkinure convent experienced, the overdramatic imagery feels flat. The dark texture and dreariness of the Irish countryside and Wilson’s disturbingly brilliant performance are enough to carry the series without the melodrama of jump cuts and sinister figures. These details often stall the six-episode narrative when it could move more swiftly, sharply forward.

Like Wilson, McCormack is commanding and effective as a big city detective frustrated by the slow pace and lackadaisical nature of Kilkinure and its lead police officer, Sgt, Aidan Massey (Simon Delaney). However, as Detective Akande begins closing in on Lorna, incidents from his childhood flair up, nudging him in a different direction and forcing him to compare the Father Percy he knew, with the truth.

Though most episodes of “The Woman in the Wall” are clogged with exposition rather than action, Episode 4, titled “The Cruelty of Man,” showcases the destressing barbarity that Lorna and what the women experienced at the hands of the nuns and priests. While some neatly tuck their trauma away, or at least appear more fragile than troubled, Lorna leans into her anguish, driven by anger, bitterness and vengeance. It’s invigorating and refreshing to watch.

Yet, despite the performances, the main issue plaguing “The Woman in the Wall” is that though the core story is compelling, it is weighed down and muddled by too many unnecessary genre elements. With two mysteries centering the series, expanding the narrative outward to focus on different characters and plot points while infusing a pattern of unneeded horror components is confounding. Without all of the extras, the series could have settled beautifully in a gothic rage.

“The Woman in the Wall” premieres on Paramount+ Jan. 19. The series will debut on Showtime Jan. 21 premiering weekly on Sundays.

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