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
(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
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
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.
(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.