SEPTEMBER 11, 2003
Sex and Insanity
By Jeremy Mathews

“The Magdalene Sisters”
Miramax Films
Written and directed by Peter Mullan
Produced by Frances Higson
Starring Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Frances Healy, Eithne McGuinness, Phyllis MacMahon, Rebecca Walsh
Rated R

(out of four)

While Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters” takes place in the ’60s, one of the most disturbing facts surrounding it is that some of the asylums it represents existed as late as 1996. That a mainstream religion could be involved in such nauseating torture shocks the mind.

The Catholic Sisters of Mercy operated the asylums, known as Magdalene Laundries, as reformatories for young—and eventually old—women who clashed with the idea that premarital sex is a sin. The sisters originally formed the laundries for prostitutes in the 19th century, but in Ireland they began operating them like prisons.

And many of the girls didn’t even commit the sin for which they’re imprisoned. The film centers on three girls who arrive in the institution at the same time.

The film opens with a wedding celebration and a disturbing scene in which Margaret’s (Anne-Marie Duff) cousin rapes her. When her father finds out, he sends her away, confusing her younger brother.

Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan, also never had sex, but the priests and nuns heading the orphanage she’s in see her flirting with boys through the fence and send her off as a preventive action.

  Nora-Jane Noone and Eileen Walsh play wrongfully scorned women condemned to an asylum run by mean nuns in 'The Magdalene Sisters.' These are not your fun-loving nuns.

Rose (Dorothy Duffy) breaks down immediately after her priest manipulates her into signing adoption papers in the hospital hallway. Then, with no child to care for, she goes to the asylum as well.

The location would be just as at home in a horror film as in this fact-based drama. There’s talk of a girl escaping after the main characters’ first day, but she’s soon dragged back in by her own father so that she can be reformed. One of Mullan’s best moments is a tracking shot that follows a group of women walking in line through a hallway before a turn reveals another line that includes old women who have spent their entire adult lives in a nightmare of imprisonment and torture.

The conditions have a way of driving people insane. Many of the older women are convinced that they are inferior and the nuns are doing them a favor by helping them get to heaven. The truth of the matter, however, is that the nuns are abusing their power of authority.

The head nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), makes Rose answer to the name Patricia, cuts out-of-line girls’ hair off and commits further acts of humiliation. The girls aren’t even allowed to speak with each other. In one painful scene, the other nuns make the girls line up before giving them towels after showers so that they can compare their breasts, amounts of pubic hair and other intimate body parts.

While the nuns might seem unsympathetic at times, it’s important to remember that the events are based on actual events and that Mullan researched the screenplay. The list of names under the titles at the beginning and end of the film recall how many women received this barbaric treatment in the recent past.

Some organizations have called for a protest against the film because it puts the Catholic Church in a bad light, but any church whose name was used in the process of such inexcusable behavior should use this film as a reminder of what shouldn’t be done in the name of religion.

The film’s strong points are scenes that simply portray the events that took place in the asylum. Some of the escape attempts are staged a bit violently and become rather awkward. One nice move, however, is the fixed view of the asylum. If one resident is released or escapes, the film doesn’t show her outside, creating the feeling of imprisonment.

The character Crispina (Eileen Walsh) also provides some of the film’s most effective moments. Her intelligence and mental stability are low, which probably led to her baby’s father taking advantage of her in the first place. A very powerful scene comes when she breaks down over a priest’s misconduct.

And such ecclesiastical misconduct sparks strong emotions. It’s more disturbing than most horror films because these women really had to spend their lives in prison for nothing more than looking at a boy the wrong way. They committed no crime at all comparable to the ones committed against them.

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