The Magdalene Sisters

A film featuring nuns that's more miserable than Sister Act 2? Thankfully of a far higher calibre though.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 13 Mar 2003 by Scott Morris
The Magdalene Sisters

Polite conversation tends to eschew politics and religion, but cinema makes no such concessions. Of the two though, it's fair to say that politics has most of the silver screen limelight, but Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters seeks to redress that balance a tad. A distressingly bleak tale of intolerance and corruption, I'd hesitate to call it enjoyable, though.

The film opens in 1964, set in good ol' Eire. Boy, is it ever set there. Sheer Irish-osity drips from the pores of every frame, as lilting brogues deluge the listener with a shower of syllables. Somehow Mullan manages to avoid showing this stereotypically despite portraying a stereotype. This is entirely warranted, chunks of Ireland remain as shown here to this day. It wouldn't have become a stereotype if it weren't accurate.

We are introduced to three young ladies, who are guilty of some of the greatest sins known to mankind. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) commits the mortal sin of having a child outside of wedlock. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin, in clear violation of the eleventh commandment, thou shalt not get raped. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) commits a heinous crime worthy of eternal damnation - she talks to a few boys. In any good catholic society, these unspeakable acts cannot go unchecked, and the girls' respective guardians make the decision to send them away from their homes into the care of the Catholic Church.

The Magdalene laundries were based on a curious adaptation of the story of biblical hooker Mary Magdalene, who after turning to the path of Jeebus denied herself any earthly indulgence and worked continually in order to redeem herself and save her soul. The laundries slant on this was that men are incapable of resisting temptation, and so it is the duty of all good catholic girls to remove them from the path of any hapless, incapable-of-controlling-impulses and thus blameless for any action males. So while the largely unseen males that put the ladies in this predicament (in Margaret's case at least) get off with a light telling off, the girls are banished from society very much in an out of sight, out of mind fashion. Their new life is less than idyllic, consisting largely of back-breaking labour hand scrubbing clothes with occasional breaks for ritual humiliation at the hands of their wardens, who happen to be nuns.

The order is headed by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), who explains this state of affairs to the girls. The philosophy is laid clear from the outset, she believes the ladies under her watch have already booked themselves a handcart to Hades, and the only way to avoid this is to wash, wash and wash until the day they die while surviving on a minimum of food. Fun and social interaction is out of the question, being against the twelfth and thirteenth commandments respectively. It's entirely shocking to think that this kind of absurd dogma could ever hold sway over anything, let alone the lives of a vast number of women in laundries like this over the country.

As seen by the failed escape bid of a fellow inmate, Sister Bridget has no truck with insubordination. The hapless lass is beaten and then has her head shaved to further humiliate and break her spirit. In these scenes, and many others where the main characters (Bernadette in particular) take issue with the iron-fisted nun, it becomes apparent that McEwan makes a terribly good job of infusing her role with a steely menace of the kind which can be difficult to portray while dressed like a penguin. Despite this clothing handicap, Sister Bridget remains a credible and imposing figure in the movie, and if the overall tone of the movie wasn't so relentlessly grim would probably fall neatly onto a 'great movie villains' list.

But relentlessly grim this movie is, as the girls drudge their way through the kind of life that is now (and was then) banned under the Geneva convention, with an entire convent full of women held with no legal basis and more frighteningly being convinced that it's for their own good. At one point Margaret has an opportunity to escape this life but after years of life secluded away from the world she cannot make the final step away and returns inside. The only winner in this scenario is the Church, running a laundry service and receiving payments without the inconvenience of having to pay the workers anything, after all, what price can be put on salvation?

The Magdalene Sisters

It takes the girls years before they make a break for the freedom of the real world, during which time they've seen sad women who have existed there their whole lives before dying, having achieved nothing apart from a lot of cleaned overalls. They witness shocking degrees of hypocrisy and downright illegal behaviour by the clergy. While this film is not exactly a roust-about light hearted caper, it's compulsive viewing and absolutely infuriating, although not in a 'this film's horrible way', more 'the Catholic Church is horrible', destroying lives for the slenderest of reasons, or no reason at all.

The acting throughout is exemplary, with the leads having no problems creating sympathetic characters given the ammunition they have. Watching Bernadette grow increasingly bitter as her life is stolen from her day by day is tragic yet beautifully portrayed, and the slow crushing of the other's spirit under the nun's repression is certainly affecting.

The only problem is there's just too much of this misery. While this is never intended to be a quickly paced movie, given the comparatively lengthy 2 hour runtime the misery of it all can give way to tedium, and there is little call in the script to inject any light hearted moments. Perhaps it would become less of a chore to watch with ten or twenty minutes chopped from the middle of the film.

Peter Mullan has a sharp eye for contrast, and the use of lighting and shadow is suitable given the dark material dealt with. He eschews most filmatic gimmickry in favour of strong scripting and acting, as with the excellent black-as-the night comedy Orphans. His style does have it's idiosyncrasies though, one scene of Bernadette having her hair forcibly cropped to the scalp is dealt with in a way far more harsh than the rape of Margaret, which seems bizarre, although terribly effective. Being set in only a few locations presents interesting cinematic challenges, but Mullan manages to hold the attentions of the audience without ever becoming bored of the set designs.

I've said in the past that given the choice between getting rid of organised crime or organised religion that it'd be the churches that drop into Room 101. While I have no beef with individuals worshipping whatever they feel like, when banded together under a chain of command corruption is inevitable, and self-serving interests dominate. However, one point that strikes me as particularly odd in this interpretation of the laundries is that not a single nun shows even the slightest sign of devotion to God and the teachings of the bible, bar the silly costume. I cannot imagine anyone becoming a nun unless they were highly spiritual people but there is no evidence of that here, more prison warders in different outfits, which seems to ring hollow.

As a record of a particularly shameful period in the Churches existence this film is remarkable. As a piece of entertainment though it can fall into the same category as American History X, a film which can be intellectually regarded as 'good' but not one that is comfortable to sit through. Highly recommended to anyone who wants a bit more meat on their films to think over than tripe like Sweet Home Alabama could hope to provide. Oh, and before you write this off as a history lesson consider this - the last of the Magdalene laundries closed in 1996.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Peter Mullan
Cast list:
Geraldine McEwan (Sister Bridget)
Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret)
Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette)
Dorothy Duffy (Rose/Patricia)
Eileen Walsh (Crispina)