|The Magdalene Sisters
With a surname like Murphy, I clearly have Irish roots. I'm also old enough to remember a time
when the Catholic Church exerted a much deeper and greater influence over its American practitioners. One
was raised to accept the infallibility of the papacy and to accept unquestioningly the tenets of the religion.
Dissent or even free thought was not encouraged let alone accepted. At the time, the church even issued lists
of which films good Catholics could see. If you willingly went to a movie that was not endorsed, you had
to confess it as a sin. After Vatican II and the social changes of the 1960s, the influence of the American
Church diminished somewhat. Today, the Pope and the U.S. Catholic League still suggest which movies
should be shunned. A few years ago, it was Dogma, Kevin Smith's rather tame satire. Now it's
The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan's award-winning drama about church-run asylums for wayward
women in Ireland.
These institutions where laundry was taken in were essentially slave labor camps operated by the Sisters
of Mercy, a religious order. An estimated 30,000 women were subjected to incarceration over the course of
the years of operation. (The last of the Magdalene asylums closed in 1996.) In 1998, British television aired
the documentary "Sex in a Cold Climate" that made the conditions of the laundries known to many for the
first time. Actor-filmmaker Peter Mullan saw the TV program and was inspired to craft a semi-fictionalized
version, The Magdalene Sisters.
Mullan opens the movie with an amazing, almost wordless set piece. At an Irish wedding, Margaret (Ann
Marie Duff) goes off to an upstairs room with her cousin. When he makes a pass at her, she rebuffs him, but
he returns and rapes her. The pair return to the festivities and with folk music drowning out the dialogue, word
quickly spreads of the boy's action. It soon becomes clear that the family is closing ranks and the women have
little or no say. The next morning, Margaret is spirited off to one of the Magdalene asylums. There, she is
joined by Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), whose crime is that she attracts (and enjoys) the attention of local
boys, yet she remains chaste, and Rose (Dorothy Duffy) whose transgression is that she has shamed her family
by giving birth to a child out of wedlock. The three newcomers have their belongings taken from them (so
they can be disinfected) and are taken to meet the headmistress, the materialistic and cruel Sister Bridget
(Geraldine MacEwen). The film then unfolds over the course of several years as the girls contemplate
escape, suffer various indignities and eventually find a sort of redemption.
The film's power stems from the way Mullan captures a repressive society ruled by religion where sex is
shameful and almost criminal. The Magdalene asylums (named after Mary Magdalene, the supposed prostitute
befriended by Jesus) are merely a tool to keep women in their proper place. Although the film is set in 1964,
it could easily have been set in the 1980s. Families allow their daughters to be incarcerated and any attempts
by the young women to protest are quickly put down. There are scenes in the film that hammer this point home.
One is of a father (a cameo by Mullan) returning his daughter who has escaped, beating her in front of the
other girls, and screaming that she is dead to the family because of the shame she has brought. Another is of
Sister Bridget drawing blood as she chops off Bernadette's hair after Bernadette has tried to escape, a
punishment meant to induce humility and break the girl's independent spirit.
As he proved in his first feature Orphans, Mullan is terrific director of actors. Here he elicits superb
performances from the trio of young actresses, along with Eileen Walsh as the mentally challenged Crispina,
who is being taken advantage of by the local priest. Still, there are heavy-handed moments that almost
ruined the picture for me. Mullan's conception of the sisters (and his clear contempt for them) is one of the
film's major flaws. All of the religious women are painted as villains. Now here's where my own upbringing
may come into play. I attended Catholic school, and my aunt was a member of the Sisters of Mercy order.
Yes, some of the religious women I encountered could be cold and brutal, quick to dole out corporal
punishment. But others were gentle souls, who cared deeply about their charges. In the film, there's
almost no sign of humanity in any of these women. Sister Bridget is portrayed as a greedy, nasty woman
and Geraldine MacEwan's performance is somewhat strident and sinister. Two of the other religious
are portrayed almost as leering lesbian in a scene where the girls are naked and the sisters assess which
has the largest breast and the most pubic hair. This is difficult to watch and is shot with a lurid quality that
nearly mars the film. Yet, in spite of these flaws, The Magdalene Sisters remains an effective and moving
study of how the individual can be controlled by religious and societal conventions.
MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, nudity, sexual content and language
Running time: 119 minutes
Viewed at Loews Village Cinema
|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.