“Ripped from the headlines” means something very different in the U.K. The BBC is a public-service broadcaster, and the kind of true-crime stories that often get a salacious makeover in the U.S. are, on the other side of the pond, more likely to be dramatized with a dogged realism that points, journalistically and dutifully, to wider social contexts. The Woman in the Wall may sound like the title of a novel you picked up at an airport bookstore in 2018—and indeed, it concerns a woman (played by Ruth Wilson) trying to both solve a mystery and prove her sanity. But beneath its thriller trappings, this British import—a joint production of the Beeb and Showtime—retells a front-page story of tragic, systemic injustice.
The series (streaming Jan. 19 on Paramount+ with Showtime and airing on Showtime starting Jan. 21) is set in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. It’s 2015, shortly after the publication of the long-anticipated Irish government report on the infamous Magdalene Laundries, and shortly before the formation of a new commission on mother-and-baby homes, likewise run by the Catholic Church and supported by the state, sparked by revelations of babies born out of wedlock buried in mass graves or ripped out of their mothers’ arms and sold to adoptive parents. The reckoning to which the show builds is still raw. (The final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation was only released in 2021).
Though The Woman in the Wall’s visual style is largely functional, it opens with one of its more striking images: a woman in a white nightgown, asleep in the middle of a country road, like a ghost haunting the pasturelands. In fact it’s the woman herself who’s haunted. Lorna Brady (Wilson) is prone to sleepwalking, a vestige of her confinement in a mother-and-baby home as a pregnant teen in the 1980s, during the last years when such places were widespread. Lorna is something like the local eccentric, prone to violent outbursts and impulsive behavior when in her fugue state, and ill temper and depression when awake, even alienating the fellow members of a survivors’ group.
Shot in garish and dingy pubs and cluttered village shops in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the show is set in the kind of town where everyone knows each other’s business and keeps each other’s secrets. But the past seems to finally shake loose when Lorna receives an anonymous note offering information about the baby that was taken from her. After a planned meeting that turns into a drunken stupor when the stranger fails to show, she snaps out of one of her blackouts the following morning to find a strange woman in her house, without a pulse.
Once an inconvenient woman, Lorna is again a suspect: The murder of an elderly Dublin priest with ties to Lorna’s mother and baby home brings Coleman Akande (Daryl McCormack), a millennial detective with tattoos and an earring, down to Lorna’s small town to investigate. (“I didn’t know they were sending one of the Backstreet Boys,” snipes the local Garda.) Coleman’s journey also takes him back into his own past as an adoptee rescued, or wrested, from a mother-and-baby home. Lorna and Coleman’s inquiries, into an unresolved trauma in the past and an unsolved crime in the present, proceed along parallel tracks before the personal and political ultimately converge.
Each a narrative proxy for the other’s missing birth mother and son, Lorna and Coleman encounter raw testaments of grief and traces of the old censoriousness and moral certainty in the imperious and withholding Church officials. Both are tormented by flashbacks: Lorna to the drudgery and heartstring-tugging sentiment of her time in the laundry and her separation from her baby; Coleman by jumbled nightmare montages evoking repressed memories of his early childhood in an orphanage. His is an M.R. James ghost story to her Dickensian ordeal, but they’re two sides of the same ha’penny, and the melodramatic flourishes are apt for a show that often sends its characters traipsing through old churches and abandoned orphanages, and behind the drywall of their very homes. One dialogue exchange makes a cursory reference to the Irish legend of the banshee, but The Woman in the Wall is Victorian through and through.
Lorna cuts a literary figure: Though not the titular woman in the wall, she is very close to a madwoman in the attic; she still lives in her childhood home, with an armless dummy in the front window and the kind of florid wallpaper print Charlotte Perkins Gilman might describe as “sickly.” Down up in dowdy, messy bangs, Wilson gives Lorna the rigid, hustling walk of a girl trying to keep her head down, but when sleepwalking her movements are exaggerated and almost exultant, as if finally responsive to subconscious urges. With her intense arched eyebrows, she seems sometimes lost in a contentious, two-sided dialogue with herself, and sometimes surprised by her own antisocial abruptness. She appears damaged, and slightly dangerous.
Wilson’s performance, at once naturalistic and operatic, does much to braid together the opposing strands of the series, its aspirations to gothic thriller and issue-driven docudrama—a combination that distracts from how thinly each genre approach has been executed. As an unsettling, subjective, and suspense-driven memory piece, The Woman in the Wall leans on red lighting gels, creepy old nuns, and characters seeing people who aren’t there. As a hot-button investigative procedural, it’s prone to double-underlined dialogue, generic catharsis, and Secret Sadnesses distributed algorithmically among its characters. It takes a few head-scratching plot shortcuts and is notably reliant on that inevitable trope of trauma-informed serial television, the character who is too emotionally constipated to reveal information that would hasten the resolution of the plot before the allotted six episodes.
Written by Joe Murtagh, raised in London by Irish parents, The Woman in the Wall was released to polite acclaim in Great Britain last year, but met with bemusement and worse in Ireland, where Wilson’s accent endured microscopic scrutiny, and the broad country comedy and ersatz invocations of ancient folk beliefs were met with scoffs and accusations of condescension. There was a general sense of disappointment that this story was being told by a writer and star from across the Irish Sea, without an inborn understanding of the sway the Catholic Church held over every aspect of 20th century Irish life.
As a Showtime limited series, the show may seem a bit of a bait-and-switch, promising stylish escapism and delivering a social drama that is ultimately remote from our own concerns. Or is it? The Woman in the Wall carries a unique sting in the tail for U.S. viewers, as a reminder of American families’ complicity in black-market international adoptions.