Geraldine McEwan as Sister Bridget
Anne-Marie Duff as Margaret
Nora-Jane Noone as Bernadette
Dorothy Duffy as Rose/Patricia
Eileen Walsh as Crispina
Mary Murray as Una
Britta Smith as Katy
Frances Healy as Sister Jude
Eithne McGuinness as Sister Clementine
Phyllis MacMahon as Sister Augusta
Rebecca Walsh as Josephine
Eamonn Owens as Eamonn
Chris Simpson as Brendan
Sean Colgan as Seamus
Daniel Costello as Father Fitzroy
Before they were closed down in 1996, Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were combination convent, asylum and women’s prison where wayward girls were sent to work off their “sins” in the laundry rooms. In 1964, three girls find out firsthand what the church constitutes as a sin and what happens within the walls of the Catholic Church’s most well kept secret.
In The Magdalene Sisters, Irish director Peter Mullan documents a period in time when Ireland was already fairly conservative, but it still had to contend with the strict religious disciplines of the Catholic Church. A few movies have shown the Catholic school experience, most notably last year’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, but The Magdalene Sisters is a more poignant look at the female experience and how lives were forever changed by the local clergy’s decision to send them to work at the Magdalene Asylums. Those who didn’t live in Ireland during that time period might not be aware of the Magdalene Laundries and the way they exploited the girls and women that were sent there, but Mullan seems to have been driven to tell this story about them. Mullan’s last experience with asylums was in 2001’s Session 9, one of the most haunting horror films of the last few years, and he uses a similar setting to create an eye-opening film experience about the way that the Church allowed these places to exist, profiting from the slave labor of women they deemed unworthy of remaining in normal society.
While at first, Magdalene seems like little more than a glorified convent, it is nothing like the warm and cuddly versions found in The Sound of Music or “The Flying Nun.” Magdalene is more like a prison camp with the young women being humiliated and abused at every turn, particularly from the elderly matron, Sister Bridget, who would make the sergeant from Full Metal Jacket seem tame.
The reasons that the three main girls are sent to Magdalene seem fairly innocuous. Margaret is sent there to quiet her down after she is raped by her cousin, the brash orphan Bernadette merely flirted with a group of boys, and Rose is sent there after watching her newborn baby being taken away from her. None of these girls are stupid or insane or even particularly bad, but because of their unfortunate choices, they’re relegated to the Magdalene’s slave labor and forced to do whatever it takes to get out.
While the nuns are cruel and sadistic to the girls, giving them regular beatings and humiliating them, the Church tries to create a façade that the asylum is a safe haven for these “fallen women”. At one point, the girls are even dressed up and paraded around the local town for Easter. Mullen’s unflinching camera shows the indignities without pandering or exploiting the situation, and there are a number of powerful scenes that drive home the fact that there was nothing holy about the Magdalene experience. Granted, there are a few humorous moments that lighten up the tension, but they are few and far between.
Mullan takes advantage of the movie’s limited budget, keeping the sets minimal with most of it taking place at the convent and its surroundings and not cluttering up the dialogue with incidental music. This method gives the movie the look and feel of a Dogme 95 film, and with the bells and whistles removed, the focus falls upon the solid script and the excellent performances by the entire cast.
Although most of the characters are fictionalized archetypes of the girls and women that ended up in places like the Magdalene Laundries, all of them are unique and well developed. Nora Jane Doone’s rebellious Bernadette is the most intriguing of the three main girls, as her motivations seem to be a well-kept secret. She’s also responsible for some of the most daring escape attempts. Margaret is strong willed and intelligent, while Rose is a bit more eager to please those around her. Surprisingly, Crispina, the simpleton who gets the worst of the punishment and treatment, ends up becoming the lynchpin that binds the three new arrivals together. She also is responsible for some of the movie’s most disturbing moments, as she finally reaches critical mass and begins shouting the same words repeatedly in a scene that would have been far more effective if it didn’t go on for so long that it becomes uncomfortable.
Geraldine McEwan, best known for her title performance in the 1978 television mini-series, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, gives an award-deserving performance with her portrayal of the malevolent matron, Sister Bridget. It is so perfect that you know from the second she first appears that she is the living embodiment of evil. Yet, she also brings a vulnerability to the character that forces the viewer to sympathize with her as the tables begin to turn. Her performance makes the movie special, and the best scenes involve her conflict with the three girls.
The only real issue I had with the movie is probably unavoidable due to the low budget. Most of the film has a grainy look due to the use of digital video. It takes a bit of adjusting to since it immediately takes away from the realism of the 60s setting. Furthermore, the use of hand-held cameras in order to get up close to the actors during some of the more dramatic scenes took away from the experience that you were watching real life as it takes place.
Although devout Catholics might not appreciate the implications about the Catholic Church and its attempts to cover up the goings on inside the Magdalene Laundries, this is a story that clearly needed to be told. Mullan does so in a way that keeps the viewer riveted to the plight of these girls with an intriguing story and sympathetic characters. With one of the best scripts of the year and top-notch performances all around, The Magdalene Sisters is a must-see movie deserving of Oscar attention. Regardless of whether it gets it or not, Peter Mullan has proven himself to be a master filmmaker, creating a poignant and moving drama that harks back to the 70s classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest.
The Magdalene Sisters is playing now in New York and Los Angeles and will open in other cities across the country over the next few months.