Film

The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Peter Mullan's film both amplifies and flattens these stories, so they are at once sensational and too intimate.


The Magdalene Sisters

Director: Peter Mullan
Cast: Geraldine McEwan, Ann-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-08-01 (Limited release)

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.