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The Woman in the Wall review – Ruth Wilson is mesmerising in this beautifully made gothic mystery

A woman whose baby was taken away in a Magdelene laundry wakes to find a dead body in her house. Did she do it? And how does a priest’s death relate? This is a poignant journey into trauma

Ruth Wilson as Lorna Brady in The Woman in the Wall. Photograph: Chris Barr/BBC/Motive Pictures

Man hands on misery to man for sure – but the misery man has handed on to woman sometimes seems of another order entirely. And so to The Woman in the Wall, the BBC’s new six-part drama set in Ireland where the power of the Catholic church over female bodies and their fates was unassailed and, until the blink of an eye ago, looked to be unassailable.

Written by Joe Murtagh, it is based on the experiences of those who were sent – usually by their families, usually with the encouragement of their local priest – to the Magdalene laundries or, if pregnant, to the mother and baby homes that were often attached to the facilities that ran on the girls’ indentured servitude. The bar for the “wayward” behaviour that could get you banished there was low. As one of the local laundry’s former residents explains to the detective investigating the case with which the drama opens, her friend was sent there because “she was a great beauty” and everyone feared she would soon get an eye for boys and married men. “She never even had a boyfriend.” The last laundry closed in 1996.

Ruth Wilson plays Lorna Brady, who was sent to her local laundry/home for being pregnant at 15. The baby was taken from her by the nuns and, like the rest of the young mothers, she has never known what happened to her child. Wilson gives a mesmerising performance as an unspeakably damaged woman fibrillating with rage and self-loathing, driven to the edge of insanity by her experiences and the lifelong insomnia and somnambulance to which they have given rise. When she is left a note and a phone number from someone claiming to know what happened to her baby, contact with the writer proves elusive and her torment increases. After a thwarted meeting with the person who supposedly has the answers she needs, Lorna wakes to find herself back in her own bed with no memory of how she got home and a woman’s dead body downstairs.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, an ageing priest, Father Percy Sheehan, has been murdered and Detective Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) is assigned to investigate. Father Percy’s car is found abandoned just outside Lorna’s home town of Kilkinure and the two storylines become more and more entwined.

Other women in Kilkinure who suffered at the laundry or had their babies taken from them are banding together to try to force the state to properly recognise what happened there. Previous attempts have only resulted in the authorities agreeing with the religious orders in charge that it was a “training facility” to teach the girls mothering and other skills.

As this realistic legal action is pieced together, the feverish disintegration of normality proceeds apace in Lorna’s world. She encloses the corpse behind her sitting room wall and starts her own investigations into who she was – the letter writer? A former nun? A random victim of Lorna’s increasingly common fugue states?

The mystery of the two murders unfolds with just enough twists and turns to keep things compelling without losing credibility. And it is merely the framework for the real story, which is about how people cope with trauma when all the higher powers, from God to government, who might have offered resolution have abandoned them. There are those both consumed and driven by bitterness, those trying to forgive and forget and those who travel back and forth between the two extremes. But all are united by the strange workings of shame and guilt inculcated in them when they were too young to know how to resist, and struggling to rebuild the sense of selfhood that the nuns and priest in charge made it their business to destroy.

It is beautifully and harrowingly done. And – such a rarity this – the gothic element, spilling out of Lorna’s mind and home, feels not like a bolt-on to add drama lacking elsewhere but an integral part of the story. A manifestation of the deepest possible horror, beyond reason, beyond words, but never alas beyond the willingness of man to inflict, for generation after generation, on others when he can.

The Woman in the Wall aired on BBC One and is available on iPlayer.

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