IN 2018, 221 Irish women received a cancer diagnosis. These women had previously been tested through the CervicalCheck Scheme and were wrongfully told there was no evidence of cancer or precancerous cells.
Their fight for justice has been well documented by women like Vicky Phelan, one of the victims of misdiagnosis, who has publicly charted her cancer journey.
The Letters is a new Irish film that tells the fictional story of three women whose lives unravel due to their misdiagnoses.
The film’s writer and director Robbie Walsh says the story of the women and families affected by the CervicalCheck scandal needed to be told. He felt compelled to write it and believes that, although this is a fictionalised account, it represents all those who received wrong diagnoses.
“These stories were starting to creep into the mainstream media and the consciousness of the public. The more I heard about these women, the more appalled I became.
"It scared me, because I don’t think we will ever find the extent of the scandal and how many people were missed. The more stories we heard, the more personal it became; it hurt to hear the stories because it could be anyone’s sister or mother.
“My film, Eden, had its cinema release and the next day, I sat down with four people and said, ‘Here’s the next film I’m doing, if you don’t want to get involved, I understand’. They didn’t even let me finish the sentence. They were in straight away. They knew how important this story was.”
The film is shot in black and white and tells the story of three women with different lives but facing the same consequences.
Sam (Mary Murray) is a single mother with four children, living in poverty, and fears leaving her children without a guardian. Cliona (Sarah Carroll) is a high-flyer but has no family support and faces her cancer journey alone. The third story revolves around Mary (Kathleen Warner Yeates), the sole carer for her mother, Bridgette (Ann Russell), who has late-stage Alzheimer’s. As Mary’s condition progresses, her biggest fear is who will care for her mother when she is gone.
Through their stories, Walsh tackles several heavy themes, not just cancer, but homelessness and society’s attitude towards the care of the elderly, and also touches on the consequences of the Magdalene Laundries.
Walsh says it is essential for him to reference social issues in his work and believes that, without addressing problems, they can be forgotten.
“My first film was about homelessness, my second was about gang culture. We have to address all these underlying issues that constantly get swept under the rug, otherwise the next thing that happens, it gets attention for a week, and it gets swept under the rug as well.
"You must remember that the women who CervicalCheck failed had other things going on and then a cancer diagnosis was thrown at them. That is why my characters all have other issues going on; they represent the real women who became ill, some of whom have since died,” he said.
Walsh made the film on a shoestring budget. He found it hard to get funding from any state bodies to make the film and, in the end, he resorted to self-funding on the project. At my interview, Walsh had taken a break from hand-delivering the film to cinemas.
“I have one more to send, and that’s by post to Cork. I made this with a laptop and a leap card. I’ve had some phenomenal support from some of the cinema chains.”
Sarah Carroll, who plays Cliona, believes that The Letters is an important film and hopes audiences will support it.
She said: “I’ve worked with Robbie before, so I knew this film would portray an intimate and very raw glimpse into the lives and pain of these three women. I was drawn to Cliona’s complexities and challenges and knew her story was one I wanted to portray. It was important that the subject was handled sensitively and evoked a strong reaction from the audience. I think we’ve achieved that.”
John Connors, best known for playing hardened characters, plays a social worker and portrays a much gentler side than audiences are used to seeing. Walsh says viewers will enjoy seeing Connors playing against type.
“People are used to seeing John as the big tough gangster, but here he is gentle. He is a generous actor; he didn’t want to take from the leads. He understood that this was their story,” said Robbie.
Mary Murray says that playing Sam was physically demanding: “It consumes you for a while when you play a part like that. You do some research, and the thoughts are always playing on your mind. When you’re playing somebody who is ill, your body doesn’t know the difference. It thinks you are sick, so it took a few days after filming to get back to normal, but we were fortunate that we can step out of these parts and think, but then leave it behind, unlike the real women who are sick.”
Murray says the film is a reminder that all the women affected are real people and not just figures we hear about on the news.
“This tells the story of regular individuals and how this has impacted their lives. It’s about those who are left behind who suffer because of negligence. We hear about these women but seeing them on screen connects us differently.”
The Letters is running in Omniplex, Mahon Point.