The Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Girls with a convent education tell shocking stories about how bitchy and petty minded the nuns were. Protestant boys, who might have suffered from a master's favouritism, nod sympathetically. What they don't appreciate is the power the Catholic church had over the psychological and moral wellbeing of entire generations, especially in a country like Ireland.

It used to be de rigueur in Britain for the sons of a certain class to go to boarding school at seven years old, where institutionalised bullying and corporal punishment were an accepted part of the make-a-man-of-'em philosophy. Parents, especially fathers, condoned this, believing, in some dysfunctional way, that cruelty was character building.

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The tradition of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland was, also, condoned by the parents of girls who showed signs of sexual independence. The laundries were convents, where the miscreants were banished after committing sins of the flesh, real or imaginary, such as having a baby out of wedlock, or flirting with boys. Once inside, they were treated as slave labour and allowed no privileges. Sometimes, they remained there for the rest of their lives, while the church benefited financially and the word of the Lord prevailed.

Peter Mullan's film follows the experience of three girls in the mid-Sixties, who are virtually kidnapped, with parental approval, and removed by force to one of these places, where the mother superior (Geraldine McEwan) issues a firm decree at the outset: "Disobedience will not be tolerated." The popular belief amongst local lads is that the inmates at the Magdalene are whores and trollops.

Margaret (Annie-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin during a wedding party and the shame on the family is such that she is whisked off by the morality police, without explanation or possibility of appeal. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) lies in a bed at the Maternity Wing when her father and a priest arrive. "Did you see the baby, Da?" she pleads. "He's beautiful." She is ignored. The priest insists that she sign adoption papers, after which the child is taken immediately and she finds herself in the convent dormitory, weeping from the pain of unexpressed milk. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) has dancing eyes and a wicked smile. "I know a little temptress when I see one," her teacher spits. She teases the boys, leaning on the railings around the playground, because it's fun and she doesn't care. Although a virgin, she is escorted to the Magdalene as a precautionary measure, to keep her out of trouble.

Mullan's approach is unsentimental. The humiliation and emotional deprivation suffered by the girls makes everyone else's horror school stories pale into insignificance. The nuns are not evil women, with sadistic tendencies. They are misguided religious guards, who take pleasure tormenting their prisoners. Perhaps, that is the same thing.

There are precious few laughs in this prisoner-of-God movie. The intensity of the experience builds up to bursting point. Little incidents of humanity relieve the tension, as when Margaret has a chance of escape, only to find the outside world more scary than what she knows, or when Bernadette promises the van driver's assistant carnal favours in exchange for the key to the door: "I'll commit any sin, mortal or otherwise, to get out of here."

The performances have a raw naiveté that cuts clean to the truth. Noone's ability to radiate sexual frivolity and ruthless determination in the same breath is impressive, while Eileen Walsh's depiction of a girl driven mad by God's indifference stands out amongst a plethora of fine acting.

Reviewed on: 23 Apr 2002
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Story of the Catholic convents where Irish girls were sent in response to an assortment of social transgressions.
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Read more The Magdalene Sisters reviews:

Jennie Kermode ***1/2

Director: Peter Mullan

Writer: Peter Mullan

Starring: Geraldine McEwan, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Phyllis McMahon, Eamonn Owens, Chris Simpson, Sean Colgan

Year: 2002

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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