The Magdalene Sisters

on August 01, 2003 by Susan Green
It's somewhat ironic that "The Magdalene Sisters" won the top prize at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, in the same Mediterranean land that the Vatican calls home. Peter Mullan's condemnation of the Catholic Church is set in Ireland, however, and his riveting sophomore feature travels four decades back in time. It's an era when girls are still the property of their parents, who in turn obey the priesthood with unquestioning faith. Daughters who stray--sex outside of marriage is the primary offense--are condemned to involuntary servitude at commercial laundries run by merciless Sisters of Mercy. The idea behind these "Magdalene Asylums" is that poor living conditions, inadequate food and hard work, seven long days a week, equals atonement for sins.

Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped, but she's the one punished by indefinite confinement at one of these facilities in County Dublin. Pretty Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is shipped out of an orphanage because she flirts with local boys. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is forced to give up her out-of-wedlock baby for adoption and live in the abusive Magdalene environment. Simple-minded Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who also has an illegitimate child, is more vulnerable than the others. The head nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), regularly humiliates and beats the incarcerated laundresses for the slightest infraction of strict rules. But her greatest pleasure is counting the cash from the religious order's exploitation business.

The young women feel caught between Catholic guilt and the suspicion they've done nothing to deserve such inhumane treatment. An actor himself ("Trainspotting," "My Name is Joe"), Mullan encourages uniformly strong performances from his wonderful cast in roles that must have been physically and psychologically challenging. Nigel Willoughby's cinematography conveys claustrophobic surroundings without suffocating the viewer, who may already feel kicked in the gut by this unflinching snippet of history. Starring Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Geraldine McEwan, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Britta Smith and Sean Colgan. Directed and written by Peter Mullan. Produced by Frances Higson. A Miramax release. Historical drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 120 min

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