The Magdalene Sisters

September, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Peter Mullan

Starring:Anne-Marie Duff, Nora Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Geraldine McEwan, and Eileen Walsh

Although most of us, (in our Walter Mitty moments) tend to idenfity with movie heros, screen villains often provide the most vivid film memories; who can forget Jack Palance shooting a sad-eyed Elisha Cook Jr. in Shane, Ernest Borgnine viciously beating Frank Sinatra in From Here To Eternity or Richard Widmark dispatching a wheel-chair bound old lady in the original Kiss Of Death? A pair of recent performances bears inclusion in this is despicable group--Serge Lopez's sleazy hotel manager in Dirty Pretty Things and Geraldine McEwan in this movie--playing, of all things, a nun. Her performance is only the first of many outstanding elements in this superb piece of muckraking cinematic journalism.

The gifted actor Peter Mullen wrote and directed this examination of Ireland's practice of institutionalizing wayward teenage girls in religiously-run laundries. Without providing due process, the girls were effectively incarcerated for sexual transgressions as frivolous as mere flirting. Since most of the citizens of the Emerald Isle are Roman Catholic, most of these programs were conducted by religious orders of women, especially the Sisters of Mercy, who chose the name Magdalene for their work providing it with an ominous sense of scriptural judgment.

According to the testimony of women actually forced into them, (as reported in a series of articles in The Irish Times) these laundries functioned as prisons, whose inmates had either borne children out of wedlock,  been raped, and sent away by families too embarrassed to punish their rapists or who happened to be orphans suspected of  becoming sexually active. Crime was never an issue--unless you consider those in charge.

The movie presents the stories of three young women, (one each from the categories mentioned above); how they came to be placed in confinement, what happened to them while they were there, and how they finally managed to leave. While their individual routes to Magdalene's door differed, their treatment once inside the walls proved painfully similar; hard work, no pay, and constant humiliation from sanctimonious nuns whose judgmental attitudes were as un-Christ-like as it is possible to imagine. Not surprisingly, the girls responded with coping strategies that ranged from hostility, (brutally suppressed) to wary observance of the petty and dehumanizing rules, (rigorously observed) to terrified subservience, (rewarded with cruel indifference). Since release dates came only at the discretion of the nuns, sentences were frighteningly indeterminate.

Among a host of richly presented characters, (including an un-credited one by Mullen himself, in a brief scene as a brutal father who drags his daughter back to the laundry after she's escaped and returned home) McEwan's role as Sister Bridget, the mother superior, deserves Oscar consideration; venal, smug and consistently self-

righteous, she rules the laundry, her subordinates and the hapless girls with sadistic élan, glorying in the money she's taking in "for the good of the convent". As suspicious of the girls' sexuality as she is ignorant of her own, McEwan, mean-spirited smiles playing across her prim face, provides the audience with a personification of an evil that could only come from complete self-delusion; the Devil incarnate, sacrilegiously clothed in the habit of her order. 

Mullen takes no prisoners here; the lecherous priest, (who gets his comeuppance from one of the girls in a most implausible but satisfying manner) the oblivious archbishop who comes for a visit and sees nothing but good work being done, the family members who don't write the simple letters that can automatically generate releases; all are sketched with a vivid fury focused on exposing the senseless violence done these young women and the cultural hysteria surrounding human sexuality that provided the societal justification for what was done to them. But the director's polemical tone is justified by the facts; over 30,000 women suffered this inhuman abuse, and the last of the laundries persisted until the mid-1990's. Recent payments to some victims have already been made; allegations that certain deaths which occurred during incarnation were unreported have been vigorously denied by the Sisters of Mercy.

Magdalene may be harrowing to watch, but its brutal honesty is compelling and surely cathartic for those women who endured the system who have said that, if anything, the conditions were even worse than those Mullen depicted. 

The Verdict? See this one for the director's caustic directorial style and McEwan's mesmerizing performance. 


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