‘The Woman in the Wall’ Hides an Effective Tearjerker Behind a Conspiratorial Crime Horror Story

The Woman in the Wall” more than justifies Sinéad O’Connor’s non-violent protest, tearing a photo of Pope John Paul II live and unscripted on “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 3, 1992. This six-part limited series is as much a murder investigation as it is a mystery of faith. It appears the dead body of an adoptive mother is covered in plaster beside tell-tale tears of incriminating wallpaper, but that is too obvious a solution. 

Lorna Brady, played with a feral magnetism by Ruth Wilson, is similarly an accepted antidote to the accepted logic of a crime procedural. She is a ferocious victim and a justified suspect, who is so right for the part of double-murderer she cannot possibly be guilty. It’s not that Lorna is innocent, but homicide isn’t the worst crime under investigation, and there are enough villains to go around. Dublin police Detective Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) is called to examine the body of Father Percy Sheen (Stephen Brennan). The priest was murdered at his Belfast home, but his car was stolen and abandoned off a road in Kilkinure.

There are crimes which can’t be seen, except possibly by Lorna, renowned throughout the remote Irish town of Kilkinure for suffering bouts of blackouts, which culminate in visions, hallucinations, and sleepwalking. “I can’t tell what’s real anymore,” Lorna explains. “I’m seeing things and hearing things that aren’t there.” She is volatile enough to commit the murderous act, justifiable angry in her grief, prone to unreliable memory, and is on surveillance footage showing she torched the car of the dead priest. “Stay awake,” Lorna writes on mirrors, her hands, and any scenario which needs appraisal. Bad things happen when she closes her eyes. Lorna stays awake for days in terror of what else she might do. The film provides evidence that Lorna is the victim, suspect, and audience stand-in. It is circumstantial at best, blasphemy at worst.

Lorna’s backstory is one of the secret societies of “Magdalene Girls,” unwed teen mothers dumped in Catholic-run Magdalene laundries who had their newborns put up for adoption against the mothers’ wills. A group of the women are working through official channels on the oft-broken promise of government recognition of and reparation. A flashback to Young Lorna (Abby Fitz) finds some things can’t be repaired. A brutal realization brought on by Sister Eileen (Aoibhinn McGinnity) emphasizes eternal internal guilt. “And you call yourself a mother?” Real mothers recognize their newborns. Desperate pretenders endure the Sisters of the Seven Joys. Father Percy had a long history with the Sisters of the Seven Joys.

“The Woman in the Wall” begins with a horror atmosphere, abetted with religious imagery. Detective Colman is struck by the many hair brushes adorning the windowsills. Local constable, Massey (Simon Delaney), explains how some people think they ward off the banshees. They don’t believe in spirits, but that “doesn’t mean we’re not afraid of them.” Lorna suffers from psychological horror. She can’t trust her own mind. She fears she killed someone while in a fugue state. The first half of the series keeps us wondering whether Lorna might be a serial killer. 

She hears whispers in empty rooms, and is tortured by a constant sense of paranoia until “The Woman in the Wall” changes focus, immersing itself into investigations of the crimes of the Church. While Colman longs for any belief that his search ends with Lorna, that hope is swept away in a bittersweet dance of impossibilities. 

The Woman in the Wall” begins streaming Jan. 19 on  Paramount+ with Showtime and airs Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime, with new episodes streaming Fridays on Paramount+ with Showime.