The Magdalene Sisters Movie Review

Stirring up controversy for its depiction of Ireland's brutal, now-defunct Magdalene laundries for wayward girls, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters muckrakes the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and comes off seeming self-righteous, gloomy, and redundant. Opening with young Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) getting raped at a family gathering by her cousin, followed by brash Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) cooing to boys in the schoolyard, and finally showing timid little Rose (Dorothy Duffy), whose illegitimate child is snatched away at the hospital, The Magdalene Sisters firmly and staunchly paints its victims into a corner and keeps them there. The parents hide their eyes in indifference or dismay, sending them into the cruel clutches of the incomparably cruel Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) and her chamber of horrors--a prison run by nuns where beatings, canings, oppressive work conditions, and random cruelties are part of the daily routine.

There aren't any particular surprises in The Magdalene Sisters once the three heroines are locked away. Most sequences follow the same pattern, where the lank-haired, poorly fed, and half-clothed girls aspire for freedom, love, or fair treatment and are met with beatings and brutality. Lest there be any doubt of Sister Bridget's wicked witch nastiness, she's often seen counting her money and turning a blind eye to the random injustices within her makeshift girl's prison. Often compared with Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched, a more careful viewing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will reveal subtleties to the character that don't exist in the one-note tyrant, Sister Bridget.

As these girls whimper and pine away, Bernadette uses her feminine wiles as a way to potentially escape with the laundry boy while using bad girl sadism among her fellow inmates as a means of survival. Victimizing others while remaining a victim herself, Bernadette isn't particularly complex but breaks Magdalene's mood of downbeat, "nothing changes" misery. More compelling, and frustrating, is Margaret finding an unlocked door, an idyllic wide-open field, and an opportunity for escape, wavering in that moment of indecision. It's a rare visual moment where the girl's relationship to God, and her idea of God's punishment, is put to task. The tone of Magdalene feels so off, though, that this is followed by a painfully earnest and simplistic confrontation where one of the girls, a simpleton (Eileen Walsh), shrieks repeatedly at her minister-rapist, "You are not a man of God!" Meant to be cathartic, it merely plays false; the filmmaker's dream of momentary justice in an unjust world comes true.

While Mullan's kitchen sink directorial approach is steeped in grimy, lived-in naturalism, he lacks the defining features of other British filmmaker influences: Ken Loach's political zealotry, Mike Leigh's humanity, Alan Clarke's taste for the absurd, or Michael Winterbottom's cinematic zeal. He's competent, though he's unwilling to make bold artistic leaps (as he did in his previous film, Orphans, which was puerile but had some alarming fantasy sequences). The film stock, faded and parched as though it were found in the '70s, feels like an affectation more than a statement.

Sequences such as the one where the girls are stripped naked and paraded before the nuns so they can choose who have the finest bodies, meant to condemn social wrongs, feels vaguely exploitative. The question of whether Mullan is getting off on his own savagery is cast further into doubt by his cameo as an angry father who shows up one night, whips his daughter raw, then seethes to his young cast, "You're all whores." While it's interesting that he'd choose to present himself in a disparaging light, the moment also condemns him. The Magdalene Sisters is a torture-drone made for a noble cause, but one that seems to feed off of a twisted desire to observe pain for its own sake. And like many lectures on righteousness, it's also painfully dull.

The DVD includes an exposé documentary about the Magdalene Laundries.

Reviewed at the 2002 New York Film Festival.



The Magdalene Sisters Rating

" Grim "

Rating: NR, 2002


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