THE MAGDALENE SISTERS
Director: Peter Mullan
Cast: Geraldine McEwan, Ann-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh
MPAA Rating: (for violence/cruelty, nudity, sexual content and language)
Running Time: 1:59
Release Date: 8/1/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
First and foremost, The Magdalene Sisters is an important film, a brutal, unwavering exposť on a deplorable crime against women perpetrated by the Irish Catholic Church that went unchecked and unquestioned until 1996. Catholics in the media spotlight are quick to declare that certain situations in the film are exaggerated and/or fictional, but such statements are completely unacceptable, as the people making them clearly do not see the bigger picture. The fact that these Magdalene Asylums existed and were ever thought of as legitimate, effective forms of punishment or reform says volumes about those people and institutions that profited from slave labor. The crime remains the same whether the nuns in charge repeatedly or never abused their charges. So again, as a depiction of a silenced, still denied chapter in Catholic Church history, it is significant. Unfortunately, it concentrates intently on exposing the day-to-day abuses of those in power without finding lasting connections to its central characters. Where writer/director Peter Mullan makes up for this lack of connection is in the strong motif of women who are overpowered by a patriarchal society in which people are more comfortable labeling a woman as a whore than to censure a man as a sinner.
Mullan begins the film by introducing us to three young women, all of whom will soon find themselves in forced captivity. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is attending a wedding celebration and finds herself alone in an upstairs room with her cousin. She fights his advances, but he forces himself on her. When she confides what has happened, the word spreads through the party quickly. Mullan films this scene so that we cannot hear conversation; instead, it's like watching people from across the room and trying to make out what they're saying from their reactions. Next, we meet Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who has just given birth to a baby boy out of wedlock. Her mother refuses to even look at the child, and a priest arrives to coerce Rose into giving up her son for adoption, a decision she regrets the instant she makes it. Finally, there's Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan whose only transgression seems to be a penchant for flirting with boys over the gates of the orphanage. The three girls arrive at a laundry house run by Sisters of the Magdalene Order and headed by Sister Bridget (a frighteningly effective Geraldine McEwan). To atone for their wrongdoings, the girls do laundry for outside business while the Sisters take all the profits.
Sister Bridget's philosophy and the concept behind the asylums is that men are susceptible to temptation, and it the duty of a moral society to remove such temptations. This kind of backwards thinking is the key to the asylums' existence and continuance and gives reason behind some of the film's cruelest scenes. In one, an escapee from the convent is returned by her father, who yells that she has no mother or father anymore and proceeds to hit her with his belt after she pleads for mercy. Abuse is not uncommon at the Magdalene Asylum, and the nuns seem all too eager to distribute verbal, psychological, and physical violence to systematically break down their charges. The Sisters begin on a moral high horse: their only goal is the girls' salvation. Soon, they call them stupid, which, unfortunately in some cases, is somewhat of a truth, as some of the girls are clearly below normal mental capacity. But this only makes it easier for the Sisters to force an acceptance of this lifestyle on them. Indeed, one girl named Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who also had a child out of wedlock, most clearly displays this theme. A priest has been taking advantage of her, and when the minister's sin is ultimately revealed, Crispina receives the punishment. The priest is immune to such condemnation.
It's also shown in an older woman, who refuses to go to the hospital and spends her dying days at the convent. Bernadette is spiteful towards her, but she is right in saying the Sisters don't care about any of them. Sister Bridget is far too concerned with finding the key to her newfangled safe than to give a second thought to a dying old woman down the hall. All of the abuse leads to the film's most humiliating and disturbing scene in which all of the girls are lined up, naked, as two of their supervisors compare their anatomies. There's another scene of slighter humiliation in which the girls are paraded through town as members of the community avert their eyes as they pass. The nuns take an unhealthy entertainment in their abuse. Sister Bridget is verbally abusive with a smile. There's one scene, though, where the archbishop has brought The Bells of St. Mary's for the convent's occupants to watch, and for a brief moment, she seems human. It's an expertly calculated move on Mullan's part, and soon after, we witness the full extent of her brutality.We are inherently sympathetic to the characters' plight, but by focusing primarily on Bernadette and Crispina, we lose touch with Margaret and Rose, both of whom are pushed into the background until late developments. And even those characters Mullan focuses on are overshadowed by the depictions of cruelty. Whatever emotions the film manages to elicit remain general, even during the coda sequence in which we learn the specific fates of Margaret, Rose, Bernadette, and Crispina. They have survived, but when confronted by so many overwhelming defeats, there are only small victories.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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