Published Jul 01, 2003A young Irish woman in the early '60s is raped. Another gives birth to a child out of wedlock. A third one attracts the leers of boys. Deemed immoral by their families, the women are sent to the Magdalene Asylums to atone for their "mortal sins." There, the women are forced into slave labour, humiliated and beaten by nuns.
Writer and director Peter Mullan (best known for playing Swanee in Trainspotting), brings to the screen one of the most explosive dramas in memory. Roughly 30,000 women were detained in Ireland's Magdalene Asylums from 1767 to 1996, some till they died. Pulling no punches, Mullan exposes over two centuries of cruelty in a 119-minute film that's hard to watch, but essential to see.
We see The Magdalene Sisters through the eyes of these three women, called "stupid" and "sick" by the nuns who imprison them. Day in and day out the women clean outside laundry without pay (while the Church reaped the profits); they are beaten just for talking. The strongest character is the rebellious Bernadette (an excellent Nora-Jane Noone), who committed the crime of attracting boys with her beauty. When she tries to escape, the nuns cruelly pin her down and cut her hair. In a humiliating game, two nuns line up the inmates nude and ridicule the girls with the largest and smallest breasts, the biggest bottom and the hairiest bush. One fragile inmate, Crispina (a memorable Eileen Walsh), whose bastard child was taken from her, sobs uncontrollably. Later she goes mad and is sent to an asylum.
Mullen's direction is lean while his script is rich in characterisation. The cast is a powerful, uncompromising ensemble. The film's only weakness is its portrayal of the nuns, particularly Sister Bridget (a terrifying Geraldine McEwan) as flat, two-dimensional villains; were they once inmates themselves turned bad?
Released last fall in Ireland, where one in four have seen it, The Magdalene Sisters will make waves in North America at a time when the Catholic Church is mired in allegations of sexual abuse. Though not his intention, Mullan indicts the Catholic Church for demonising female sexuality, and castigates the society for blindly obeying it. (Alliance Atlantis)