The Magdalene Sisters


Laura Clifford 
The Magdalene Sisters

Robin Clifford 

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Magdalene asylums were established as a place where fallen women could go to literally wash away their sins laboring unpaid in a laundry business that benefited the Catholic Church. In 1960s Ireland, three young woman incarcerated together under vastly differing circumstances join forces to rebel against the abusive nuns who imprison them, "The Magdalene Sisters."

Actor/director Peter Mullan's ("My Name Is Joe") expose on the Catholic Magdalene Asylums of Ireland is a horrific look at sanctioned abuse.  The Catholic Church has been under a microscope in recent years, particularly in regards to the U.S. child abuse scandal that mushroomed from initial reports against priests in the Boston Archdiocese.  What is most horrific about Mullan's look at the Magdalene asylums is that the Church had so strong a grip on societies relatively late into the twentieth century that parents would be complicit in the barbaric treatment of their own children, all in the name of God.

The first scene is wordless, its meaning conveyed by a roving camera.  Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) tells a female relative she was raped by cousin Kevin, a scene we've just witnessed, as wedding festivities carry on about them.  Glances are exchanged in a round robin that ends with the town priest.  Early the next morning, an uncomprehending Margaret is handed off by a furious father (Mullan) and driven away in a black car. Comely Bernadette  (Nora-Jane Noone) flirts with some boys from behind the fence of an orphanage schoolyard.  Unfortunately, the pretty girl's behavior has been observed and found scandalous enough to condemn her to slave labor.  Patricia (Dorothy Duffy) wails as the parish priest tricks her into giving up her newborn for adoption as her parents erect steely fronts.

The trio is greeted by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, "Love's Labour's Lost"), a steely-eyed spirit-breaker who will only accept utter subjugation.  They discover they cannot converse while working, while eating or once lights have been turned out, nor speak to outside visitors.  It is not easy making acquaintances under these conditions, but the girls befriend Crispina (Eileen Walsh),  a sweet, simple-minded girl who lives to see her little boy when her sister manages to position him at a distance beyond the asylum's gates. Bernadette forms a love/hate relationship with a dotty old asylum assistant, a woman who horrifies her as a portrait of her own future.  The girls are routinely paraded naked on bath day and verbally abused by the comments of a perverse nun.  Crispina's torments are discovered to be worse and a scene where the girls mount a small scale revenge is both funny and a scathing indictment of abuse of the truly helpless.  Bernadette, whose sexuality won't be denied, attempts to make a pact with a delivery boy to run away, but it is only in sisterhood that these girls find their freedom.

Mullan, who reportedly compared the Catholic Church with the Taliban at his Venice Film Festival press conference, has fashioned an unrelenting, dramatically compelling film.  These heartbreaking tales are relieved by a feistiness of human spirit, although the film does not shy away from depicting cruelty from within the ranks of those being abused. Geraldine McEwan delivers an Oscar caliber supporting performance as Sister Bridget, a twisted villainous zealot with the occasional glimmer of near regret.  An image of the nun reflected in the blood-rimmed eye of Bernadette, cut while having her hair forcibly shorn, embodies the film.


Until the last one was closed in 1996 the Magdalene Convents were scattered throughout Catholic Ireland and their sole purpose was to house the outcast girls of Papist society, committing them to a life of grueling work, deprivation, humiliation and unhappiness. Venice Golden Lion winner Peter Mullan tells the story of one such convent through the eyes of three of its inmates in the powerful "The Magdalene Sisters."

It's 1960's Ireland and three teenaged girls present us with their brief "lapses" of faith in God. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is attending a family wedding where a drunken cousin gets her alone and rapes her. Word of the crime gets to her father and the local priest, but the rapist isn't punished. Instead, Margaret is shipped off in shame to the care of the Magdalene sisters. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is pregnant out of wedlock and, when the baby is born, it is taken away and the young girl is forcibly shipped to the convent. For Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), the only crime she committed was to flirt, from a distance, with teenaged boys at school. The three arrive together at the place that could well be their "home" for the rest of their miserable lives.

"The Magdalene Sister" is an earnest indictment against a Church system that indentured thousands of women and subjected them to long, hard days of scrubbing laundry for the local businesses, earning money for the sisters but getting none of it in return for their back breaking labors. The day-to-day toil the girls must withstand - including humiliating strip downs, physical abuse and psychological torture - is depicted with sometime nauseating believability. In this time when the Catholic Church is under scrutiny at all levels "The Magdalene Sisters" feels timely, though it is a subject the was close to Mullan's heart for years before coming to the screen.

Writer/director Peter Mullan crafts a film that plays its period time frame well, and presents the convent itself as an almost Medieval prison where the daughters of the working cast are sent for real or imagined crimes against the Lord. He is fortunate to have a talented cast of both newcomers and veterans that lend realness to the proceeds. Geraldine McEwan, as the convent's Mother Superior, is chilling with her kindly outward demeanor that masks the cold heart of a cruel martinet who cares more about the money her wards earn than she ever would for any of the girls and women under her dubious care. This is the best supporting actress performance for 2003 - I'll say that now.

The trio of young women at the film's focus give strong performances as innocents torn from their families because of arcane thinking that seem dated for the 19th Century, never mind for the later half of the 20th. Noone, in particular, has good presence and comes across with just the right sassy note as she professes her innocence to Sister Bridget. "I'm a good girl, sister," she insists to her jailer.

Techs are well done as the 'makers capture the period and locale of the rural isolation of the convent in 60's Ireland. The stark environment and the austere costuming - sackcloth and ashes come to mind - provide a chilling embodiment of these girls' lives.

"The Magdalene Sisters" may be criticized for beating the Church when it's down but the heartfelt honesty of the work, the fine performances and deft crafting make this a must for the socially conscious. I give it an A-.
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