Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees will doubtless go to hell for saying so, but she'd rather be the bride of Ioan Gruffudd.
Sister Catherine: You can accept the Church. You don't get into a knot
over its faults and failings.
I came to this acclaimed Australian miniseries about convent life with only the most general acquaintance with Catholicism. In Georgia, where I grew up and still live, Catholics are scarce on the ground, and as a consequence Catholicism is as alien to me as the planet Mars. But despite my ignorance—or perhaps even because of it—I found Brides of Christ an intriguing, surprising, and illuminating experience. To some extent this miniseries is geared toward the non-Catholic viewer—even toward the nonreligious viewer, since faith is not the focus. Instead, the six episodes that comprise the miniseries concentrate on the different reasons that women choose convent life and the individual challenges they face in that life.
Facts of the Case
Because each of the six episodes focuses on a different character, each gives us a slightly different perspective on Catholicism and on the convent and its inhabitants. The series starts with Diane (Josephine Byrnes), who cancels her upcoming wedding to become a nun. An independent and strong-willed woman, she has a tendency to challenge accepted interpretations of spiritual writings, which ruffles feathers among the nuns—especially stern, traditional Sister Agnes (Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot). The remaining episodes focus on (and are named for) the following characters:
• Frances (Naomi Watts, The Ring), a schoolgirl at the convent who confronts the harshness of church doctrines on divorce when her mother decides to remarry
• Mother Ambrose (Sandy Gore, Farscape), the perceptive, intelligent head of the convent, who must lead the nuns through the changes enacted by Vatican II, at the same time that her friendship with a male teacher (Philip Quast, Ultraviolet) inspires her to reach for more personal freedom
• Rosemary (Kym Wilson), Frances's rebellious best friend, who falls in love with a classmate's brother (the very young Russell Crowe) and decides to lose what the nuns call her "self-respect"
• Sister Paul (Lisa Hensley), who must decide whether she wants to marry a former priest or continue her life as a nun
• Sister Catherine (formerly Diane), who begins to question her faith in the Church in the wake of the pope's refusal to relax strictures against birth control
Spanning several years in the decade of the 1960s, Brides of Christ shows us convent life in Australia both before and during the upheaval known as Vatican II, when the Catholic church essentially promoted modernization. The episode "Ambrose," in which this change begins, is not coincidentally where the series really becomes compelling. Ambrose herself is an appealing and complex character, and the way she guides her charges through this change (or fails to) is engrossing. At the same time, it's moving to see how panicked the older nuns are at the changes taking place in their formerly rock-solid world. Representing the old guard is Sister Agnes, the strict traditionalist who disapproves of newfangled notions. Even though this character doesn't get an episode to herself, she is a constant presence throughout the miniseries and a vital foil for the more progressive nuns.
The structure of the series, which begins with Diane's decision to become a member of the order, wisely gives us an outsider's view of the process of becoming a nun before delving into the more nun-centric story lines. When the series wraps up by returning to Diane/Catherine and her struggles with doctrine, it brings a satisfying sense of closure. The series also addresses a wide range of personal conflicts and dilemmas that we would expect nuns to confront. At the same time, I was surprised that two episodes—"Frances" and "Rosemary"—focus not on the nuns but on their charges. These episodes certainly give us insight into the life of Catholics in an era of change, but I found them much less interesting than the other episodes.
Perhaps in order to broaden its audience appeal, the series does focus a lot on the sensationalistic side of Catholic life. The "Rosemary" episode is all about sex, as Rosemary's hunger for knowledge and rebellious desire to flout the convent-taught rules lead her into a series of fleshly experiments. (Her deflowering has a certain grim humor, since her partner accompanies his exertions with a breathless running lecture on the advantages of various forms of birth control. Ah, romance!) Another episode shows us the gory ramifications when a good Catholic wife and mother inflicts abortions on herself because she believes that taking the pill is wrong. Sister Paul faces erotic temptation when she takes a leave of absence from the convent to decide if marriage is the right course for her. Many of these episodes may alienate Catholic viewers, since they focus on the harshness of church doctrines and the personal crises they can inflict, but they will satisfy non-Catholics' natural curiosity about the consequences of Catholic teachings on sex.
The quality of the acting is uniformly strong. It's enjoyable to see future stars like Russell Crowe and Naomi Watts while they were still young and unknown—but already proving their ability. At the same time, the unfamiliar actors in the larger roles are so good that I wondered why we hadn't seen them make similar breakthroughs into American film. Sandy Gore, Josephine Byrnes, and Lisa Hensley are all magnetic women with such talent and screen presence that I would have expected them to be household names by now, judging by their work here. Philip Quast, who was memorable as a priest in the vampire miniseries Ultraviolet, excels here in a completely different role: a motorcycle-riding nonconformist with a deeply skeptical view of codified religion. Brenda Fricker, one of the better-known names thanks to her breakthrough performance in My Left Foot, brings complexity and conviction to Sister Agnes, who at first seems to be no more than a stereotype.
The Rebuttal Witnesses Now the bad news. Although the acting is consistently solid, the visual quality of the transfer is inconsistent. Many scenes are so busy with grain and other visual noise that they look like a pre-cable TV set trying to tune in to a station just out of range. In other scenes, there is only minor speckling and jitter.
Audio is much cleaner, but dialogue varies from being isolated in the center to being spread out more appealingly across the channels. Occasionally, voices drop too low to be understood. No subtitles are present to assist, although they would be welcome when the Australian accents are prevalent.
Among the extras, the feature on Vatican II is a mere two screens' worth of text and doesn't add much to what we learn in the "Ambrose" episode. The cast bios are a nice courtesy, however, since many of these actors are unfamiliar to American audiences.
Brides of Christ was an intriguing window into a time and place that I might otherwise never have been exposed to. It forced me to reexamine my assumptions about nuns and the women who choose a religious vocation. Devout viewers may be put off by its implicit criticism of Catholic doctrine on sexual matters, but well-drawn characters and strong performances make it well worth a rental at least. And it may serve as effective therapy for those with traumatic memories of nuns wielding rulers.
Guilty! Guilty as sin! Oops, sorry, that was Sister Agnes talking. The defendant is acquitted of all charges and is free to go.
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