Much of the buzz attending Peter Mullan’s impressive new film, The Magdalene Sisters, concerns its subject matter. That is, the Catholic Church’s abuses of Irish girls throughout the 20th century. Or, to put a finer point on it, the film takes on the longstanding Magdalene Asylums for wayward girls (and girls just thinking about being waywardish), the last of which finally closed its doors in 1996. Records remain unavailable to public scrutiny, though much denial goes on; estimates have some 30,000 girls and young women passing through (or dying at) the Asylums, where they did laundry—under incessantly brutal conditions.
Denounced by the Catholic League as anti-Catholic, The Magdalene Sisters now comes to the States, which is, of course, dealing with its own set of Catholic institutional horrors and cover-ups. No doubt, all of these aspects—the dreadful topic, the public controversy, a ready Stateside viewership—have to do with the film’s success. But The Magdalene Sisters is something other than a sensation, or an excavation of systemic cruelty. It’s also a sober, sometimes obtrusive look at how efforts to preserve innocence (read, in this case, female virginity) can result directly in its loss.
The film tracks the experiences of four girls, loosely based on real victims of the Magdalene laundries. Several appeared in Steve Humphries’ 1997 television documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, which Mullan saw and couldn’t shake. And no wonder: the women who tell their stories—Phyllis Valentine was sent away for being too pretty; Martha Cooney when she revealed that a cousin had raped her. As they speak, some decades after the events, their faces convey a sense of tragedy and betrayal that mere words never can.
Mullan’s film both amplifies and flattens these stories, so they are at once sensational and too intimate, by filling in narrative gaps and detailing scenes of mistreatment and malevolence. But even as the nuns and the fathers tend to turn into abstract emblems of evil - all dark robes and shiny foreheads—it becomes apparent that, for the girls, this is the view in front of them. Their overseers are enigmas, with unfathomable motivations and seemingly limitless capacity for meanness. The girls’ sense of interminable imprisonment and fear is effectively conveyed in Nigel Willoughby’s paradoxically sharp-and-shadowy cinematography, Craig Armstrong’s subtly unsettling score, and Mark Leese’s chilling production design, as well as some edgy editing by Mullan and Colin Monie.
The Magdalene Sisters begins in Dublin 1964, outside of the Asylum, briefly showing three girls at the moments they are assigned punishment by the adults around them. In the first scene, Margaret (Ann-Marie Duff) is raped during a local dance, reluctant to tell, and then punished for doing so; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) attracts attention in an orphanage playground, and is sent away when she smiles at one too many boys. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is forced to give up her child out of wedlock, then sent off so as not to embarrass her family. Once they arrive at the Asylum, these three girls meet the simple-minded and increasingly unstable Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who has also given up a child.
Their circumstances are surely dire: they wear sacklike uniforms, work in the laundry room for hours on end, eat horrible food, and are not allowed to speak among themselves. Ever. Specific punishments doled out for infractions are swift and severe, ranging from beatings to isolation to starvation. The bulk of the abuse is psychological, and intensely effective. One of the most painful scenes to see is one where some nuns force a group of girls to strip for their showers and stand in a line, to be evaluated for body types: who has the biggest nose or the smallest breasts. Each judgment evokes giggles and sneers from the nuns, as the girls have no choice but to expose themselves to humiliation and horror.
Each girl adopts her own survival strategy—withdrawal, acquiescence, resistance. Bernadette, the most outspoken and devious, decides that as long as she’s named a whore, she’ll behave like one, in the hopes that having sex with one of the laundry delivery drivers will get him to help her escape. When that fails, she begins to find her own ways to feel powerful, lording her street smarts over the other, more feeble girls, and in her own small way, emulating the nuns.
Eventually she can stand it no longer, and asks the question all the girls keep inside: “What have we done? We’re not slaves. We’re not criminals.” But in the eyes of this institution, they are—even looking so nice as to inspire interest from a boy or jealousy from a nun, for instance, can earn you a stay at the Asylum. The nuns tell themselves and the girls that their sentences are a means to “save their souls,” to serve God and seek redemption—for all their lives. But it’s difficult to tell how self-aware these tormenters are. When one girl’s father (played by Mullan) brings her back after she’s run away, his anger and frustration are plain on his face: she disobeyed him, she brought shame on his family (“You have no parents,” he insists. “You’ve killed your mother and me”). But he is inflicting such suffering on her, so visibly. How can he not see? And if he does see, how can he do it?
The Magdalene Sisters doesn’t quite take up these sorts of questions, focused as it is on the girls’ perspective, their righteous outrage and fortitude in the face of inexplicable malice. The presumption is that the social climate—so very cold—is intractable. While John F. Kennedy’s portrait adorns the office walls at the asylums, women simply are unimaginable as sexual subjects, capable of desire or worse, agency. Any indication of such transgression had to be stopped instantly. As Mary Gordon observes in the New York Times, “The moral horror of the Magdalene laundries is that the abuses they perpetrated were not the outgrowths of simple sadism, or even of unmindfulness, but of a belief that they were intended for the victims’ own good” (3 August 2003).
Mullan’s film makes this point with occasional hamhandedness, in the character of the head of this particular home, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan). Almost cartoonish in her spitefulness, her most astonishing moment comes on a Christmas day, when she gives the girls a “present,” in the form of a film, namely, The Bells of St. Mary’s. Watching Ingrid Bergman comfort a sinner, Bridget’s eyes brim with tears, seeing her own efforts mirrored in this beatific image. Again, her lack of self-consciousness is stunning—how can she see so wrongly? The Magdalene Sisters provides its own gloss on the moment, in that Bernadette catches the tears and looks astounded and disgusted, encouraging or anticipating your own response. Given what you’ve seen, such prodding is unnecessary.