The Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters

UK/USA, 2002. Rated R. 119 minutes.

Cast: Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Frances Healy, Eithne McGuinness, Phyllis McMahon, Rebecca Walsh, Chris Simpson, Daniel Costello
Writer: Peter Mullan
Music: Craig Armstrong
Cinematography: Nigel Willoughby
Producer: Frances Higson
Director: Peter Mullan


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm feature profile and interview with Peter Mullan.

I f The Magdalene Sisters wasn't based on a true story, you wouldn't believe it. Women locked up in convents for having premarital sex…or even just thinking about it? In Western Europe? In the Sixties?

Un. Be. Lievable. Preposterous. Laughable. Even in a staunchly Roman Catholic country like Ireland. This is the time of Van Morrison (okay, he's from Northern Ireland), just a decade and a half before U2 and the Boomtown Rats, in a modern country that over the last ten years or so has been the fastest growing economy in Western Europe. This is not the 12th century.

Yet locked up women were, becoming slave laborers in the Magdalene Asylums, convents that doubled as laundry service businesses. Meet three such women—Rose (Dorothy Duffy), Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone). Rose has just shamed her parents by giving birth out of wedlock. The baby is handed off to adoptive parents like a bag of produce, and a distraught Rose is shipped off to the Magdalene Sisters. Margaret, meanwhile, has the appallingly bad taste to be raped by her cousin in a back room during a wedding reception. Off to Magdalene with her. Bernadette is guilty merely of making eyes at the boys on the street outside of the orphanage where she has grown up. She obviously intends something disgraceful, so away to Magdalene with the little temptress. They must all atone for their sins via servitude.

Their new home turns out to be a house of horrors. Jack-booted nuns, led by brutal convent commandant Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), capriciously demean and punish the inmates, beating them and even forcing them to strip naked in order to take turns cackling at their physical flaws. Discarded by their families and thwarted in their escape attempts, the girls are in serious danger of scrubbing dirty sheets at Magdalene their entire lives, even though the legality of such an incarceration appears hazy. Some of the other girls, like slow-witted Crispina (Eileen Walsh of When Brendan Met Trudy), are even worse off, having been broken after years of abuse. She is an especially poignant character who believes she can converse with her son through the St. Christopher medals they both wear.

The Magdalene Sisters is one of those films where there is no danger of confusing the protagonists and the antagonists. Films such as this tend to be one-dimensional. How despicable those nuns are! How terrible for those girls to suffer such cruelty! Except in the instance of Katy, a woman confined and brainwashed by the Sisters for so long (forty years) that she has become their most loyal tool, there is little exploration of the sexual repression and religious paranoia that could create such creatures as these sadistic nuns. They're just evil. If you prefer your moral dilemmas delineated in shades of gray, where different perspectives are examined and blame is difficult to assign, then The Magdalene Sisters may not be your kind of film.Dorothy Duffy and a cackling nun

No doubt, what happened to the victims of the Sisters of the Magdalene Order is wrong. However, two hours of, "This is wrong!" can be difficult to bear. What makes The Magdalene Sisters much better than a censorious browbeating is the girls themselves—well-defined individuals with different quirks and secrets. Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose each respond differently to incarceration and must find a different way of enduring. Quietly strong Margaret is simultaneously the most cerebral and the most empathic of the three leads, even declining an easy escape at one point, possibly to stay to follow through on a revenge plot against one of Crispina's tormentors. Rose, having been deprived of her son but still going through a new mother's biological and hormonal changes, is much more emotional and passive, while Bernadette's defiant and baleful glares dominate every scene she's in.

Of the women who play the three, Anne-Marie Duff is the only actor with any experience, having appeared briefly in Enigma and some television series. Writer/director Peter Mullan (Orphans), a fine actor in his own right (Session 9; The Claim) who appears in a cameo as the domineering father of a girl named Una (Mary Murray), coaxes excellent performances, even from the amateurs. Except for Noone, who perhaps flashes her eyes a little too exaggeratedly sometimes, it is impossible to detect any "acting." Hers is a tough role though, conveying both anger and fragility, often concurrently. Walsh's role as a good-hearted simpleton gradually driven mad is even more difficult. The scene when she finally snaps as an unintended consequence of Margaret's reprisal is one of the high points of the film.

Mullan told AboutFilm in a recent interview that he was inspired by a documentary he saw several years ago on the Magdalene Laundries. Apparently, the Sisters of the Magdalene Order's labor camps, thought to have housed tens of thousands of women, thrived until the 1970s, when automatic laundry machines and increasing public scrutiny began forcing them out of business. We in America might fail to appreciate just how strong a grip the Catholic church had over the national psyche and culture in some countries until very recently—and still does in places—but the Church's refusal to acknowledge or discuss its scandals should come as no surprise.

Mullan wanted to make a film about the wrongs done in the name of the church and the women's ordeal. The Magdalene Sisters is a Serious Issue movie, and like most Issue movies, it tends to overemphasize its points. It wants to educate and shock, not to discuss. The message is more important than the narrative. Nonetheless, the narrative is well-constructed, with clear story arcs for each of the central characters and a downbeat but satisfying ending, enhanced by cinematographer Nigel Willoughby's truthful lens and cinema verité style. Or rather, digital video verité style.

Although The Magdalene Sisters is too busy being outraged to leave audiences with anything more complex than, "I can't believe that happened!" it is difficult to envision a more powerful portrayal of the punishments some women endured just for being sexual creatures. Perhaps, in this instance, that is enough. If this is what went on in Ireland as recently as the 1960s, all is forgiven, Sinead O'Connor. Rip up all the photographs of the Pope you like.

Review © July 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

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