This is one of those films that make you want to hug someone, if only to reassure yourself that you are safe and sound. Judge Sandra Dozier recommends a friendly dog, partner, or loved one.
In a place that defied belief their only hope was each other.
I came away from watching The Magdalene Sisters feeling angry, tearful, and almost…violated. This powerful story, given life by fine direction and excellent performances, had me riveted from beginning to end, and I haven't been able to say that about a movie yet this year.
Facts of the Case
Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), and Rose (Dorothy Duffy) are three young women trapped into indentured servitude at the Magdalene Laundry after "falling away" (engaging in behavior unbecoming a lady) thereby disgracing their families. The year is 1964, a time when the Catholic Church had a firm rule over Irish society and their word was law. For a woman to fall from grace, or even be suspected of compromising her chastity, was considered a mortal sin punishable by whatever means necessary. In this case, each girl was shipped off to the Magdalene Laundry, a facility run by nuns. There they were subjected to 10-hour days of backbreaking labor, meager rations, and no recreation, all for no pay. They were effectively "guilty until proven culpable," and their rights and opinions meant nothing to the nuns, many of whom were sadistic and unforgiving.
The movie opens with Margaret at a wedding. She is lured into a secluded place by a cousin and raped. Afterwards, she stumbles back to the main room in shock and tells a friend, who attempts to get help from other family members. Festive music plays over this scene, and as word spreads, all you see are moving lips followed by a succession of grim faces. Finally, her father looks at her as if she were a stranger, and we begin to realize something is wrong. Her mother mutely looks on, clearly resigned. It is no surprise to the viewer that Margaret disappears the next day.
We then see Bernadette in the playground at the orphanage where she lives, flirting harmlessly with some boys who are passing by. Although she is enjoying herself and their attention, she tells them she's not the kind of girl they want. Unfortunately, an administrator notices Bernadette's appeal to boys, and decides that removing the temptation would be best for all concerned.
Finally, Rose is introduced, having just given birth in the hospital. Her mother won't look at her, acknowledge the child, or speak. Even as Rose begs her for a sign of recognition, she stares stonily ahead. Her father presents her to a priest, who smooth talks Rose into signing away custody of the baby. They are both gone before she realizes what has happened.
When they reach the Magdalene facility, they bear witness to, or on the receiving end of a series of brutal acts and humiliations perpetrated by the nuns, the head of whom is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Sister Bridget loves counting money, disciplining young girls, and God. Her holiness is matched only by her ruthlessness, and yet there are a few moments where we see her regret; never in front of any of the girls, and you get the feeling that even she is unaware of it.
The story becomes one of survival. After meeting Crispina (Eileen Walsh)—a young girl whose mental instability caused her to be led astray by men and give birth out of wedlock—and a succession of older women who have been in the Magdalene Laundry for decades—and seem either zombie-like or manic—the girls are hard-pressed to retain their sanity or their will as the years pass. Small victories give them some pleasure, but mostly there is just cracked skin, tired eyes, and pain.
As grim as the plot synopsis sounds, The Magdalene Sisters is ultimately a story about hope and the will to live even under seemingly unbearable strain. The simple cruelty of an ostensibly holy institution, responsible for so much pain and misery, took my breath away. It's difficult to convey the precision that writer/director Peter Mullen employs in each scene—there is no dead weight in this movie, and every scene expertly communicates an emotion without throwing it in your face. I am reminded of a scene early on where Rose fights with her father as her baby is being taken away. The framing of the shot was uncomfortably tight, so that all you could really see was blonde hair, arms flailing, and the rigidity of her father's frame, but it so perfectly communicated the feeling of frustrated rage that she was feeling. She knew it would do her no good to struggle, but inside she wanted to shove everyone aside and take what was rightfully hers. Such feelings are usually accompanied by throat-constricting claustrophobia.
Much of the subtlety is due to the actresses in the lead roles. This is an example where casting counts. Geraldine McEwan, as the Reverend Mother, somehow managed to never make the audience feel any sympathy for her, which is much harder than it sounds. She was required to express regret, even to cry at one point, and yet you always saw the emptiness behind her eyes, and the coldness in the very set of her shoulders.
While the Magdalene institutions began as a way to rehabilitate women who sold their bodies for money, by the 1940s they were taking in any sort of wayward female, and the definition of "wayward" was broad. Bernadette is based on the true story of a woman who went in simply for being looked at because she was beautiful. What do you say to something like that? How can something like this possibly exist in modern times? The movie does not answer these questions, but it doesn't have to. By the end, it is understood that there is no reasonable explanation.
The last of the Magdalene Laundry facilities closed in 1996, after an estimated 30,000 women had gone through the system. When I mentioned this to a friend, he said in mock surprise, "You mean Nineteen-seventy-six, right?" It blanches the complexion to think that this sort of thing could be going on in "civilized" society in modern times. Certainly it is an embarrassment to the Catholic Church, which has been under a microscope lately, and wants no additional attention. Still, this is a story that needs to be told, if for no other reason than to give hope to women in parallel modern-day situations.
Perhaps this was some of the reason for including four PSA-style commercials on spousal abuse, alcoholism, anorexia, and self-esteem on the DVD. Sponsored by http://www.facetheissue.com, actresses Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Lopez lend their voices to these short animated statements about finding help for out-of-control situations. I liked the message the shorts conveyed, but was slightly irritated that they ran before the movie played. I think it may put some viewers off. It's easy enough to skip past and view them later via the Special Features section.
As for special features, the fifty minute BBC documentary that inspired Mullen to write and direct The Magdalene Sisters is included with the DVD. It is both fascinating and heartbreaking to see what has happened to these women so many years after the fact. One of the women profiled has never married because she never wanted to give anyone power over her again. Another matter-of-factly states that she married a good man who was, "very patient—very, very patient for a number of years." Still another can't talk without crying, and recounts the way the priest would wrap himself in a cloth before molesting her. It's just chilling, just horrifying, and I felt so helpless, watching it. There aren't any additional extras or production featurettes, but they really aren't necessary—the documentary is a fitting and satisfying accompaniment.
Video quality is not very good with this DVD transfer, which has more to do with the source material and lighting than with age or poor transfer. What comes across is clear, but muddy and with a noticeable shimmer during some of the darker scenes. However, this too lends to the mood of the story and may have been intentional. The sound quality is superb, with a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track that captures ambient noise nicely, with only slight vibration during some of the more lively bits. The image is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and in addition to the English track and English subtitles for the hearing impaired, there is a French dub and French and Spanish subtitles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The biggest problem I had was the darkness of the film and the slightly hand-held look of some of the sequences. It seemed to be just enough jiggle to be irritating, but not enough to make me queasy. Other than that, I have no complaints.
Perhaps the reason why this movie gets under the skin is because it has a message that transcends women's issues and organized religion—it is about human rights, and the idea of being singled out simply for what you are or what you represent. If it doesn't make you stop and think, I'm not sure what will. The story is, unfortunately, timely, and it shouldn't be missed.
The Magdalene Sisters is given the key to the front gate, and free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• "Sex In a Cold Climate" (Original Documentary)
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