Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003

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Robert J. Lewis
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from The Magdalene Sisters
from The Magdalene Sisters
from The Magdalene Sisters
from The Magdalene Sisters


directed by Peter Mullan


* * * * * * * * * *

Forget Freddy Versus Jason. For a real horror show, try The Magdalene Sisters. Exposing the hair-raising abuse and inhumanity that flourished at Ireland's Magdalene Asylums in the 1960s, Peter Mullan's film wants to outrage. Like Rabbit Proof Fence, his movie, with the deftness of a surgeon's scalpel, cuts to the heart of a decades-deep institutional cover-up/scandal and finds religious arrogance gone frighteningly round the bend.

Right from the film's get-go, we're thrown into the harsh predicaments of three Dublin adolescents. It's 1964. During a lively wedding shindig full of percussive music and sweaty socializing, young Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a lustful cousin. Meanwhile, Rose (Dorothy Duffy) pleads with her parents to allow one last look at a newborn son being swept away into forced adoption. Then there's the lovely, orphaned Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), exchanging playful glances with some curious boys from across a courtyard fence.

Condemning their dubious conduct as evil betrayals by 'fallen' temptresses, their strict Catholic caregivers withdraw support. All three 'morally endangered' young women find themselves disowned, denounced, and dumped at a Dublin workhouse run by iron-fisted Sisters of Mercy. Their sentences will be indefinite, the 364-day work schedule grueling. Their sanity will be challenged by verbal, physical and sexual abuse on a casual, consistent basis.

Although this ain't Hogwarts, there's full-scale witchery being practiced behind Magdalene's locked doors. The girls are rounded up by a grinning, habit-wearing hag and told to strip, before their breasts and bottoms are ridiculed and mocked. Mother Superior Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) hacks off hair and issues concentration camp cuts to girls who attempt escape. And when a particularly fragile resident publicly protests the relentless sexual favors demanded by a priest, she's whisked away to a mental hospital.

The film's three lead actresses forge memorable portraits of survivors defying the spirit-snapping conditions to which they're condemned, pumping humanity and spirit into a film that could have been unbearable, even as they warp and strain from the cumulative damage of their shared experiences. Noone's Bernadette is the most fiery and fierce of the three, enraged that her (non-crime of) attractiveness has resulted in enforced servitude and humiliation. Meanwhile, she's not beyond using her beauty to seduce a horny delivery boy, if only to provide the illusion of free choice.

Margaret is more tentative, unwilling to flee even after stumbling across an overlooked, open door in the estate's garden. Her actions hint at a life shackled by years of societal submissiveness, rejection, and criticism. Perhaps this is my lot in life, Duff's tired eyes seem to reflect.

Duffy depicts Rose's heartbreak and hurt in a worried glance, or an anxious shuffle, as when her character provides another mother with forbidden glimpses of the son she hardly knows.

Mullan, also an acclaimed thespian and winner of the Best Actor award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, strives for a visual style as dire and unpleasant as his subject matter. Drab earth tones choke off any hint of vibrancy or color. Enshrouded in steam, the laundry scenes elicit the swelter and sweat of the sauna. The nuns' pale faces are a grotesque collection of folds, slits, and flab. Scrubbed and cadaver-like, their mugs would not look out of place on mortician's embalming table.

A natural reaction to The Magdalene Sisters is to ask: was it really that bad? The answer might rest in the Vatican's quick condemnation of the film as an "angry and rancorous provocation," and complaints from victims who insist that their experiences were actually much worse than those depicted in Mullan's film. Meanwhile, it's startling to consider that Magdalene Asylums were still in operation as recently as 1996.

The Magdalene Sisters shows how innocents are victimized when society casts a blind eye towards corrupt institutions, allowing them to fester for decades. It's a story that needs to be told.

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