The Magdalene Sisters
review by KJ
Doughton, 15 August 2003
Freddy Versus Jason. For a real horror show, try The
Magdalene Sisters. Exposing
the hair-raising abuse and inhumanity that flourished at Ireland’s
Magdalene Asylums in the 1960s, Peter Mullan’s film wants to
outrage. Like Rabbit
Proof Fence, his movie thrusts an observant microscope beneath
the carpet of overlooked historical travesties, and finds religious
arrogance gone frighteningly round the bend.
from the film’s get-go, we’re thrown into the harsh predicaments
of three Dublin adolescents. It’s
1964. During a lively wedding shindig full of percussive music and
sweaty socializing, young Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a
lustful cousin. Meanwhile,
Rose (Dorothy Duffy) pleads with her parents to allow one last look
at a newborn son being swept away for forced adoption. Then
there’s the lovely, orphaned Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone),
exchanging playful glances with some curious boys from across a
such behaviors as evil betrayals by "fallen" temptresses,
their strict Catholic caregivers withdraw support.
All three "morally endangered" young women find
themselves disowned, denounced, and dumped at a Dublin workhouse run
by iron-fisted Sisters of Mercy.
Their sentences will be indefinite.
The 364-day work schedule will be grueling. Their sanity will
be challenged by verbal, physical and sexual abuse on a casual,
this ain’t Hogwarts, there’s full-scale witchery being practiced
behind Magdalene’s locked doors.
The girls are rounded up by a grinning, habit-wearing hag and
told to strip, before their breasts and bottoms are ridiculed and
mocked. Mother Superior
Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) hacks off hair and issues concentration
camp cuts to girls who attempt escape. And when a particularly
fragile resident publicly protests the relentless sexual favors
demanded by a priest, she’s whisked away to a mental hospital.
film’s three lead actresses forge fine portraits of survivors
enduring such spirit-snapping conditions, even as they warp and
strain from the cumulative damage of their shared experiences.
Noone’s Bernadette is the most fiery and fierce of the
three, enraged that her non-crime of attractiveness would result in
servitude and humiliation. Meanwhile, she’s not beyond using such
beauty to seduce a horny delivery boy, if such actions are required
is more tentative, unwilling to flee even after stumbling across an
overlooked, open door in the estate’s garden.
Her actions hint at a life shackled by years of societal
submissiveness, rejection, and criticism.
Perhaps this is my lot in life, Duff’s tired eyes seem to reflect.
depicts Rose’s heartbreak and hurt in a worried glance, or an
anxious shuffle, as when her character provides another mother with
forbidden glimpses of the son she hardly knows. The stars of The
Magdalene Sisters pump humanity and spirit into a film that
could have been unbearable.
also an acclaimed thespian and winner of the "Best Actor"
award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, strives for a visual style
as dire and unpleasant as his subject matter. Drab earth tones choke
off any hint of vibrancy or color. Enshrouded in steam, the laundry
scenes elicit sensations of sweltering in a sweaty sauna.
The nuns’ pale faces are a grotesque collection of folds,
slits, and flab. Scrubbed and cadaver-like, such mugs might look at
home in a mortician’s embalming room.
natural reaction to The Magdalene Sisters is to ask, was
it really that bad? The
answer might rest in the Vatican’s quick condemnation of the film
as an "angry and rancorous provocation," and complaints
from victims who insist that their experiences were actually much worse
than those depicted in Mullan’s film.
Meanwhile, it’s startling to consider that Magdalene
Asylums were still in operation as recently as 1996.
shows how innocents are victimized when society casts a blind eye
towards corrupt institutions, allowing them to fester for decades.
It’s a story that needs to be told.