Magdalene Sisters, The (United Kingdom/Ireland, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The battle lines surrounding The Magdalene Sisters were drawn long before it reached its limited North American theatrical distribution on August 1, 2003. The film, which shines a light into the shadowy recesses of religious/sexual repression in Ireland during the middle of the 20th century, has been denounced as anti-Catholic by the ever-outspoken Catholic League and at least one Cardinal. One could easily make an argument that there is some validity to this claim. Although the movie is based on factual occurrences, writer/director Peter Mullan shows on more than one occasion that he has little sympathy with those in a position of power. Consequently, there isn't a single even or balanced portrayal or a nun or priest. Geraldine McEwan's Sister Bridget is little more than a Nurse Ratchet with a habit, and no attempts are made to develop her into someone human or three-dimensional.

Nevertheless, despite shadings of an anti-Catholic bias, the story told by The Magdalene Sisters is powerful and disturbing - an example of how fundamentalist religions of all types often marginalize and brutalize women. The Catholic Church has largely moved beyond the attitudes and activities displayed in this film, but there are plenty of oppressors out there who continue to perpetuate such practices. (Anyone remember the Taliban?) It's also an historical fact that places like the Magdalene Sanctuary existed in Ireland. By making this movie, Mullan has opened eyes to circumstances that many around the world may be unaware of.

The Magdalene Sisters tells the stories of three girls who, for a variety of reasons, are placed in the "care" of a group of nuns and priests whose duty is to put their bodies through suffering in order to save their souls. The girls in the Magdalene Sanctuary have three things in common: they have either been abandoned by their families or have no families, they are viewed as "impure" (due to a real or perceived sexual transgression), and they are completely under the thumb of the church. The Magdalene Sanctuary is like a prison. Escape is virtually unthinkable, and, for those who do consider it, difficult to accomplish.

Margaret (Ann-Marie Duff) has been disowned by her family after she was raped by her cousin and had the temerity to accuse him of the wrongdoing. The sin was laid at her feet, and her payment was to be packed off to the Sanctuary. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) lived in an orphanage until her frequent saucy conversations with neighborhood boys resulted in her being given into the care of the nuns. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) had a baby out of wedlock, which she was forced to give up for adoption. The shame created by that misstep was enough to cause her mother and father to turn their backs on her. The Magdalene Sisters presents the stories of these girls, as well as that of the simpleminded Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who has been at the Sanctuary for some time.

This is the second feature from director Peter Mullan. Before getting behind the camera for Orphans, Mullan was best known for his compelling interpretation of the title character in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe. With the exception of Geraldine McEwan, who plays Sister Bridget, the head nun and chief authority figure, the cast is comprised of unknown faces (an approach that Mullan may have learned from Loach, who shys away from "name" actors). All of them are adept at their craft, however, and we have little difficulty accepting the girls or their circumstances.

The tale that unfolds during the course of The Magdalene Sisters may be specific to Ireland in the 1960s, but there is a Dickensian feel to the setting, almost as if events are taking place in a much earlier, less enlightened time. The girls confined in the Sanctuary are there because of perceived immorality and are forced to act as slaves. Their rights as citizens of Ireland have apparently been suspended - an example of ecclesiastical law taking precedence over civil law. They are society's cast-offs, and that allows the government to turn a blind eye to whatever happens to them.

By focusing the movie on Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose, Mullan concentrates on three characters who are not broken by their circumstances. However, whereas Margaret and Rose live in hope of a better tomorrow, Bernadette is not as optimistic, and believes that the only way she will ever achieve freedom is to obtain it forcibly. Her first attempt at escape has terrible consequences, but that doesn't dissuade her from plotting another. Crispina, on the other hand, is in many ways the movie's most tragic character. Too simpleminded to contemplate escape, she accedes to any indignity without a struggle. Her only reason for living is so that she can steal glances at her toddler son when her sister brings him to the Sanctuary's gate.

The film might have been more compelling had Mullan allowed Sister Bridget to exhibit as much compassion as sadism. Nevertheless, even considering the demonization of the authority figures, The Magdalene Sisters is a disturbing and compelling motion picture that depicts the forces that try to suppress the human spirit, and the strength of these girls in overcoming it. Issues surrounding Mullan's precise adherence to historical fact are a red herring. This is a worthwhile movie because it is well-made and encourages viewers to think and feel.

Magdalene Sisters, The (United Kingdom/Ireland, 2002)

Director: Peter Mullan
Cast: Geraldine McEwan, Ann-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh<
Screenplay: Peter Mullan
Cinematography: Nigel Willoughby
Music: Craig Armstrong
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2003-08-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1