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The Magdalene Sisters

Release Date: August 1, 2003
Starring: Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Geraldine McEwan
Directed by: Peter Mullan
Written by: Peter Mullan
Distributed by: Miramax Films
MPAA Rating: R (violence/cruelty, nudity, sexual content, language)

Those who’ve seen the Pierce Brosnan starrer Evelyn will likely come to the conclusion after watching Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters that, in the mid-20th century, Ireland was the last place you wanted to live if you or your family were anything even remotely resembling dysfunctional. Mullan’s film is an occasionally off-putting but unflinching portrayal of one of the many sordid periods in the Catholic Church’s long history, but at times it also suggests that the people of Ireland were very much like the social misfits they sought to keep locked away in the infamous Magdalene asylums. While the for the rest of the world the 20th century meant technological advancement and globalization, Ireland firmly clung to isolationism, outdated laws, and social customs that silently persecuted the less fortunate sectors of its society.

In the case of The Magdalene Sisters, those unfortunates are young girls who, for a variety of reasons -- everything from being simple-minded and illegitimate to promiscuous or even just pretty and flirtatious -- were locked away in asylums run by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order. Inside these asylums, the girls were forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions, doing endless loads of laundry, while the nuns profited from their slave labor. The generally puritanical ideals of Irish society and the fact that these asylums operated out of sight (and thus out of mind) behind high convent walls meant that there were rarely any objections. In fact, the last such “Magdalene laundry” closed in 1996.

Mullan’s film follows three girls -- Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), whom the nuns rename Patricia because the Dublin asylum the three girls are sent to already has a Rose -- in the first days of their harrowing experiences at the whim of the Magdalene sisters. Girls are ruthlessly beaten with wooden rods or metal keys for speaking out of turn (there is complete silence in the asylum, except for prayer), and the priests take advantage of the girls’ isolation by sexually abusing them.

The Magdalene Sisters is a film the viewer must be prepared to watch, this much is for sure. It is an emotionally taxing drama, one that, for example, you can’t simply pop into the VCR like you might be able to a romantic comedy, and in this case it seems to run almost exclusively on shock value. But like any such movie about the suffering and persecution of the world’s less fortunate -- Schindler’s List comes to mind, although of course that movie had much more to offer than The Magdalene Sisters -- the impact that resonates with the viewer makes up for the lack of a solid story.

If there is anything thematic to chew on in The Magdalene Sisters, it is the incredible bonds that form between persecuted individuals in situations like this. Viewers will be familiar with this syndrome from any of a dozen classic prison movies they’ve seen over the years, and there’s no coincidence in that -- this film is very much a prison movie, dealing with many of the same themes that have cropped up in movies like The Shawshank Redemption or Cool Hand Luke.

In one scene, for instance, Margaret finds an isolated gate in the convent walls accidentally left open. As she steps into the outside world, the sense of space and freedom and the quiet of the Irish countryside is overwhelming. But, having become institutionalized, as well as suffocated by the hopelessness of her position (an earlier scene examines how girls locked up in the Magdalene asylums were often shunned and forgotten about by their families), she chooses to stay inside rather than escape. After all, where would she go? What would she do?

Mullan’s film sets itself apart from movies like Evelyn as well as various prison movies because it offers little hope for the viewer, and this is likely to be the point that many audience members find hardest to reconcile. In Evelyn, for instance, Pierce Brosnan’s character struggled to change Irish family law, giving hope to those that followed. In The Shawshank Redemption, the warden’s regime -- as cruel and tyrannical as that of the nuns in this movie -- stood to suffer when Tim Robbins’s prisoner made his escape. But even though the three protagonists in The Magdalene Sisters are only inside the asylum for a short time, there would follow 30 years of similar suffering for other girls -- many of whom were heart-wrenchingly never reunited with their families, according to the closing placard.

Despite the lack of a strong narrative -- the film advances in anecdotal paces -- or any noteworthy performances -- the characters tend to become faceless after a while -- watching The Magdalene Sisters can be an affecting experience. As with any emotionally draining movie about terribly evil acts or people, the viewer will come away from it feeling cleansed. Whether that’s what Mullan intended is unclear, but this much is certain: his film won’t fail to reach many viewers, in one way or another.

-- Craig Roush (crr225@nyu.edu)


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