The Magdalene Sisters
Director : Peter Mullan
Screenplay : Peter Mullan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret), Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette), Dorothy Duffy (Rose), Eileen Walsh (Crispina), Geraldine McEwan (Sister Bridget), Mary Murray (Una), Britta Smith (Katy), Frances Healy (Sister Jude), Eithne McGuinness (Sister Clementine), Phyllis MacMahon (Sister Augusta), Rebecca Walsh (Josephine)
In last spring’s quirky adventure-comedy Holes, a group of wayward boys are sent to an isolated desert camp to dig holes, ostensibly because, as the warden puts it, “You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day long in the hot sun, it makes him a good boy.” It’s an inherently sadistic scenario equating enforced suffering with redemption that’s made palatable by the story’s human comedy and uplifting ending. Interestingly enough, a very different film, Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, has a similar scenario: “You take a bad girl, make her slave over hot laundry all day in a suffocating environment, it makes her a good girl.” Alas, though, there is no comedy to balance out the sadism and no uplifting ending. And, worse of all, it’s based on something that actually took place for more than a century.
The Magdalene Laundries were operated by the Order of Magdalene under the auspices of the Irish Catholic Church from the 1850s until the mid-1990s. It is suspected that more than 30,000 women went through these laundry gulags, which were little more than slave labor prisons to “protect” girls from their own sexuality by sealing them off from the outside world and making their lives miserable. Girls were sent there against their will for every reason imaginable, from out-of-wedlock birth to, no kidding, being too pretty. Once there, they were stripped of their identities except that of a sinner and forced to clean laundry all day for no wages. Their sentences were indeterminate—some girls were out in a few years, others spent their entire lives there and died old women, long forgotten by the families that had disowned them out of shame.
The Magdalene Sisters follows the fates of a handful of girls sent to one of the laundries in the mid-1960s, and their plight is all the more distressing when you realize that the characters are based on real people (Mullan, who wrote and directed the film, was inspired by a British Channel 4 documentary called Sex in a Cold Climate). The film opens with a series of scenes that depict why three teenage girls, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), were sent to one of the laundries. Rose bears a child out of wedlock and is forced to give it up for adoption, while Margaret makes the mistake of going upstairs with a cousin during a family wedding where she is then raped. In a sick turn of blame that illustrates the perverse depths of the fear of female sexuality, it is she who is punished and sent away, rather than the rapist. Bernadette is sent to the laundry because she does little more than flirt with boys outside the wrought-iron fence surrounding her orphanage. When she pleads with one of the nuns that she’s never been with a boy physically, the nun replies coldly, “But you’d like to, wouldn’t you?” That essentially sums up the inane logic behind the laundries: Young women were punished for their sexuality simply because it exists.
Most of the narrative in The Magdalene Sisters traces the experiences suffered by these girls over a four-year period—in this way, it is not unlike a women-in-prison flick, albeit a high-brow one with the powerful force of historical veracity behind it. The laundry is overseen by the twisted Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), who is first seen counting the money earned by the girls’ labor, a none-so-subtle suggestion that commerce was just as important in these places as punishing sin. The other nuns are just as perverse, as is seen in one particularly humiliating scene in which they line up all the girls naked for the sole purpose of making fun of them physically (it isn’t hard to read this scene as an outward and misdirected expression of the nuns’ own inner self-loathing). Thus, it isn’t surprising that the laundry is dominated by cruelty and torture, both physical and psychological, and watching it unfold is a deeply disturbing experience.
At the laundry, the girls meet Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a girl who is clearly mentally handicapped, but has been locked up there because she gave birth out of wedlock (one suspects that she was probably taken advantage of sexually when she became pregnant). Crispina is the saddest character of all because she is the most abused, but doesn’t have the mental capacity to cope with it. She is even sexually abused by a priest, who is given a blackly comedic punishment of his own when Margaret puts poison ivy in his robes.
Mullan allows the events of The Magdalene Sisters to unfold with a bare minimum of stylistic flourishes—he allows the atrocities to speak for themselves. In the film’s opening scene involving Margaret’s rape, he drowns all the dialogue under the traditional Irish music playing at the reception, but the looks on the faces of those involved convey with great power Margaret’s unjust fate. The actresses who play the three primary characters, all of whom are virtual unknowns, are excellent throughout, and they bring a real sense of humanity to their victims. Nora-Jane Noone is particularly good in conveying Bernadette’s fiery willpower.
The film’s violence is brutal, but sometimes it is the quieter moments that really convey the damage inflicted by the Magdalene Laundries. In the film’s most heart-rending scene, Margaret has a chance to escape through an unlocked gate, but decides against it for no particular reason, which more than any scene of violence gets to the heart of what it means to be a prisoner stripped of one’s humanity.
Yet, as compelling as the material is, the film never quite grabs you as anything more than a gruesome exposé (although a particularly timely and important one). And, because Mullan chooses to portray everyone of the Catholic faith as cruel and misguided, the film will all-too-easily be read as a simplistic condemnation of Catholicism as a whole (it was immediately denounced by the Vatican when it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year), rather than a much-needed look at how the best of religious intentions can be twisted for the worst.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick