The Perished begins at departures, with Sarah (Courtney McKeon) at Shannon Airport in Ireland’s County Clare, taking a flight to the mainland. A statistic appears on the screen about the many thousands of women since 1980 who have gone on a similar journey to get an abortion abroad, and the stigma that they would experience back home. A second text tells of the Magdalene Laundries and “Mother and Baby Homes” that were the local alternative (at least until the last one was closed in 1996) for unmarried mothers-to-be, and were places where the remains of hundreds of babies have since been discovered. This is not dissimilar in theme to Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway (2018), except where that film took place in a 1960 Laundry, The Perished has a contemporary setting. Still, while Sarah’s story is particularised and set in the Republic of today, the past still leaves its stain on her.
In the film’s early scenes you can see how far Ireland has come, as Sarah parties in a modern, neon-lit night club with her friends, including the openly gay Davet (Paul Fitzgerald) and her boyfriend Shane (Flach Kunz), wIth whom she later has sex in the car outside. These changes in attitude and culture are hard won and relatively recent. When, seven weeks later, Sarah’s unwanted pregnancy comes to light, her devoutly Catholic mother Elaine (Noelle Clarke), embodying the attitudes of the previous generation, slaps the face and pulls the hair of her ‘fornicating’ daughter, before kicking her out of house and home. “I’m sick of you and your religious bullshit,” Sarah remonstrates, “You can’t just send me off to a Laundry!”
In a way, that is what happens. Back from her abortion in Liverpool, Sarah goes to recover, both physically and emotionally, at Davet’s parents’ place – a former parochial house. Yet even as she talks through the difficulties of her decision, at first with Davet, and eventually with her ex Shane and his nurse sister Rebecca (Lisa Tyrrell), a presence in the house, drawn by Sarah’s state of maternity, is reborn to claim its own terminated story. Here Ireland’s recent monstrous history – and Sarah’s conflicted feelings of guilt and shame – assume a hybrid form.
Written and directed by Paddy Murphy (The Three Don’ts, 2017), The Perished is obviously made on a low budget, even if a similar economy does not always govern its dialogue, which is at times overlong, repetitive and a little on the banal side. Yet that mundanity offsets the bizarre nature of what is emerging in the house, and the film’s central issues – women’s bodies and choices in a country which has traditionally oppressed them – are compelling ones, here handled with welcome irrationality and irresolution.
© Anton Bitel