Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 27, 2003
The Magdalene Sisters\r\nStarring Geraldine McEwan, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, and Anne-Marie Duff. Written and directed by Peter Mullan. Rated R.
Sisters of Misery

Catholic nuns turn into brutal prison guards in this exposé from Ireland.


To see The Magdalene Sisters is to be appalled. The real-life Magdalene Sisters were Catholic nuns who ran Magdalene Asylums, institutions that took in “fallen women” — the definition of which was extremely broad in Catholic Ireland, basically amounting to any woman whose family felt shamed by her. The women were given free room and board, but the charity exercised on them was in name only — the nuns subjected the women to backbreaking, brutal labor as laundresses while reaping the profits of their work. Effectively, the Magdalene Asylum was a life sentence of hard labor; many women lived out the rest of their lives there. The last laundry closed down just seven years ago, and the stories of the women in those places are only now coming to light. A few of these real-life cases served as the basis of this film. (When the movie debuted at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the Vatican demonstrated its talent for misplaced outrage by sending priests with video cameras into the audience to videotape moviegoers and tell them they were going to hell. That didn’t stop the festival from giving the movie the top prize. The Irish Catholic Church has officially been silent about the whole thing, although the head of the Church in Scotland was courageous enough to take out a half-page newspaper ad encouraging his parishioners to see the film.)

The movie takes place in Dublin County in 1964, but the convent is a place where time has stopped. At a time when Beatlemania and Carnaby Street fashions are sweeping the British Isles, the only signs of modernity in this medieval world are the cars that occasionally bring new girls in and the new washing machines. The latest inmates here are Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who gave birth to a child out of wedlock; Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), whose parents no longer want her because she got raped by her cousin; and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), who’s there for no other reason than that she has flirted with boys outside her school — even thinking impure thoughts is enough for a girl to end up in this hell. Bernadette is dangerous in this environment, though, because she’s the one that the world hasn’t already beaten down. When the nuns beat her, she responds with defiance, and she soon learns how to manipulate the system and lie her way out of trouble.

They’re all under the care of Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), the Nurse Ratched of this little cloistered spot of earth. Devotees of British television may remember McEwan as the heroine of the 1980s show Mapp & Lucia, and lately this 71-year-old English actress has gotten a string of sweet little old lady roles (Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Love Letter). There’s none of that in Sister Bridget. Her eyes are black pools of nothingness; underneath her wimple you’d fully expect to find a pair of horns. She’s strong enough despite her age to administer physical punishment, but she much prefers to torture the girls with her words, taunting them about their sexual desires and taking away every scrap of dignity that they might hold onto. (Threats always sound more threatening when delivered in an Irish accent. The musicality of the brogue gives a subtle, playful, taunting edge to tough talk and makes cruelty sound like something to be savored.) McEwan is no less creepy in her moments of vulnerability, such as when she weeps while watching The Bells of St. Mary’s. Her performance, carried along by all the serenely demented force of religious fanaticism, makes Sister Bridget one of the most riveting villains in recent movie history.

The director here is Peter Mullan, better known to movie fans as an accomplished, forceful Scottish actor who takes on projects by experimental filmmakers with working-class sensibilities. He has played the lead to often tragic effect for Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe), Michael Winterbottom (The Claim), and Brad Anderson (Session 9), and he shows up here briefly as an enraged father who returns his girl to the convent after she’s escaped.

This is his second feature film as a director, and it’s pretty easy to spot the influence of Dogma 95 filmmakers in his style. He uses natural light and minimal background music, and he gives his movie a suitably hard, gritty look. Instead of varying the tone to create a conventional storyline, he gives the same tone to many of the scenes to build up a single sustained mood. This is right for the material, evoking the world of harshness and cruelty that these girls lived in, and he’s not averse to throwing in interludes of hope or even humor, such as when Margaret gets a measure of revenge on a sexually predatory priest. Even with these scenes, the movie’s two hours’ worth of sadistic violence (emotional more than physical) is a bit much, and Mullan is occasionally guilty of carrying a scene past its point. Still, The Magdalene Sisters is more than just a socially conscious work that tells an important story. Its heroines’ struggle against a riveting villain makes this the year’s best prison movie.

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