By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2003
The Scottish actor and director Peter Mullan delivers a scathing reproach to the Catholic Church in "The Magdalene Sisters," a devastating portrait of a particularly painful chapter in that institution's history. The fictional story of four women living in Ireland in the 1960s, it might as well be set in medieval times, so archaic and brutal are the tortures it represents. Like the best of this sort of narrative, "The Magdalene Sisters" raises the question of how people can endure profound suffering and -- more mysterious -- how they can inflict it.
The story opens in 1964 at a country wedding, where Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is taken upstairs and raped by a cousin. She tells a relative, but the result isn't the sympathy and outrage on her behalf that she expected. Instead, she is bundled off to a Magdalene Asylum, one of a network of institutions that were built in the 19th century to house "wayward women," who were put to unpaid work doing laundry. Joining her in the dank, cheerless warren of barren rooms are Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a teenage orphan whose crime was flirting with a group of boys outside her orphanage's gate, and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), an unwed mother who's just been forced to give up her baby for adoption.
The three newcomers enter what can only be described as a hell on Earth: The laundry is nothing but a work camp, where nuns regularly beat, torture and humiliate their charges, who are forbidden to communicate with the outside world and with each other. The conditions are pitiful -- a bowl of thin gruel for meals, while the headmistress, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), and her colleagues feast on bread and jam just a few feet away -- and the sisters are obsessed with the sexual functions and characteristics of their charges. It's not unusual for a nun to line the women up, force them to disrobe, and make fun of their respective body parts. After a day thus spent, the women pray at beds over which are painted the words "God is just."
Watching the ritualized cruelty, or the spectacle of the women, dressed in brown work coveralls, many with their hair shorn, trudging to their steaming sweatshop, it's difficult not to be reminded of a World War II concentration camp. And although the numbers clearly aren't the same -- an estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated at Magdalene laundries until the last one closed in 1996 -- there is a grammar of suffering and injustice, a sort of promiscuity of ghastly images, that "The Magdalene Sisters" uncomfortably shares with so many fictionalized Holocaust films. Thus the nuns begin to resemble Nazi guards, and Sister Bridget -- who sheds precisely one tear in the course of the movie, while watching "The Bells of St. Mary's" -- is missing only a monocle and a long facial scar to complete her sadistic persona.
But for all of its occasionally overheated conventions, "The Magdalene Sisters" is a stirring, emotionally galvanizing film, not only due to its shattering subject matter but thanks to Mullan's spot-on eye for casting and fluid, uncoercive style. He has assembled a fine ensemble cast, including the newcomer Noone, making a spectacular debut as the forthright Bernadette, whose response to her imprisonment is the most morally complex of the group. Most impressively, Mullan tells the story visually whenever he can -- the film's almost wordless opening sequence, wherein Margaret comes to the slow realization that her family isn't going to protect her after her assault, is particularly brilliant. Although Mullan has already come in for heavy criticism from Catholic organizations for hyping the Magdalene Asylum story, he has clearly done his homework. Having seen the film, one former charge reportedly told him, "It was much worse."
Although "The Magdalene Sisters" eventually turns into a gripping prison-break drama, the climactic moment of the film arrives not with an escape but in a seven-word accusation delivered by a mentally and emotionally damaged inmate named Crispina (Eileen Walsh). As she repeats her charge, it gains volume and force until she's indicting an entire hierarchy and its troubled history. How the simple biblical injunction to love one another could be distorted to the extent depicted in "The Magdalene Sisters," God only knows.