Throughout 20th-century Ireland, unwed women who fell pregnant were pilloried and sent to Catholic care homes at which their children were born, raised, and buried. At the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, which operated between 1925 and 1961, 800 children are alleged to have died, their bodies later found entombed in the site’s septic tank.
Written and directed by Paddy Murphy, The Perished is bookended by heartbreaking titles that relate the real-world horrors surrounding this small Irish town, and a tender list of dedications to women around the world who have suffered as a result of their choice to have an abortion. Well-meaning though these messages may be, they could be better served by the feature that unfolds between them.
After fleeing present-day Ireland to terminate her pregnancy, college student Sarah (Courtney McKeon) returns, having been ostracised by her family and dumped by her boyfriend. She takes refuge at the home of her best friend Davet (Paul Fitzgerald), which unbeknownst to them harbours a mass grave à la that in Tuam. What begins as an effective social-realist drama about the shame and religious zealotry surrounding abortion in 21st-century Ireland eventually gives way to a schlocky spin on the ancient burial ground trope, as the spirits of the site’s unwanted children are reborn as a walking corpse pile desperately searching for a mother.
The movie’s most potent scenes come early. The devastating exchange that follows Sarah’s devoutly religious mother learning of her pregnancy should feel sadly familiar to many women, and it’s in moments such as these that Murphy goes some way towards summoning the suffocating dread of guilt trips such as The Babadook and Don’t Look Now. But following Sarah’s eviction, this knotty familial dynamic and sense of foreboding is abandoned and for too long The Perished feels like a feature-length episode of Fair City, as the film spins its wheels and we endure Evan Murphy’s by-the-numbers score.
The over-reliance on chit-chat during the second act does, however, bring about some interesting themes. After Davet relays the unspectacular story of his coming out to his parents, he scolds Sarah for lighting a cigarette. “My parents might be okay with my sexuality,” he says, “but if they thought I was fu--ing smoking they’d crucify me!” It’s a playful line that captures the arbitrary rules by which households often operate, and suggests that, were things different, Sarah’s mother might have been merely anti-smoking rather than anti-choice.
The film’s final third sees Sarah call upon her estranged boyfriend, who in turn calls on his nurse sister when Sarah shows remarkable, impossible signs of another pregnancy. Bekki Tubridy deserves credit for the ghastly design that is revealed, economically framed and sparingly shown throughout. But this goofy capital H Horror monster feels fundamentally out of place here. No boogeyman, no matter how well-realized, can adequately represent the atrocities laid out in the opening titles, and more stomach-turning angst is summoned in the battle between Sarah and her mother than in her skirmishes with this gooey brute.
In trying to get close to the enormity of Tuam, the filmmakers have perhaps been blinded by their own goodwill. Rather than a searing critique of a country and a religion that could allow such heinous crimes to happen, The Perished boils down to a by-the-book story of a woman punished for her decision, which could be seen to undermine its pro-choice slant. Between its kitchen sink drama and grand guignol theatrics, there are two stories fighting for supremacy here, and there’s a pervading sense that neither is truly a man’s to tell.
Murphy has made a muddled movie, but he is certainly not tone-deaf. His shoulders may not be broad enough to completely support the weight of such a terrifying, all-too-real topic, but his heart is in the right place.
Movies Score: 2.5/5