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    The Magdalene Sisters

    Twisted sisters

    The real horror film of the summer is "The Magdalene Sisters," Peter Mullan's prize-winning excoriation of the Catholic Church's institutional enslavement of thousands of so-called "wayward" young women from the mid-1800s to 1996.


    School children learn about slavery as an ancient and abstract condition. The victors in warring nations enslaved the vanquished; the Jews were slaves in biblical Egypt; colonists in pre-revolutionary America (and Australia) became indentured servants, earning their freedom with seven years of hard labor. During the molasses-to-rum-to-slave trade of the antebellum South, Jamaican and African slaves became unpaid labor with no hope of freedom, save at the whim of some kind master or by rebellion.

    Written and directed by: Peter Mullan.
    Cast: Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Frances Healy, Eithne McGuinness, Phyllis MacMahon, Rebecca Walsh, Eamonn Owens, Chris Simpson, Sean Colgan, Daniel Costello.
    Cinematography: Nigel Willoughby.

    Related links: Official site
    New York Film Festival 2002

    The Magdalene Sisters
    Man Without a Past
    My Mother's Smile
    The Son
    Talk to Her

    Festival site
    Now Peter Mullan's extraordinary film "The Magdalene Sisters" exposes yet another form of slavery, not at some far distant historical perspective, but as recently as late- 20th Century Ireland. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the Catholic Church set up a series of Magdalen (no e) laundries (ironically named for the biblical harlot rescued and pardoned by Christ) to "save" so-called "wayward" Irish girls. Definitions of wayward ranged from prostitution and alcoholism, to being orphaned, retarded or giving birth outside marriage.

    The idea was that hard work would redeem these "fallen women" and there was no work harder than hand laundry. As time went on, the laundries took on an even more Dickensian flavor as the church incorporated bits of those early models of slavery, adding refinements only a religious institution could devise. They enslaved generations of these girls, for whom the laundries became virtual prisons without any possibility of pardon or parole.

    The film offers the church a chance to take responsibility for its crimes against thousands of women. The church's sole response has been to condemn "The Magdalene Sisters" and Peter Mullan.  

    Eventually, the church also expanded from an internal organization for their laundry only, to a money-making operation handling non-clerical items as well. The girls' families (who had to sign them over to the laundries) became the church's partners-in-blasphemy. Together, church and family refused to ever release them. It was only the discovery of 133 unmarked graves on church grounds in 1970 that first brought this horror to public light. A play ("Eclipsed") and a Joni Mitchell song ("The Magdalene Laundries") have indicted both the church and those families — but they've never formally been prosecuted.

    Peter Mullan, the brilliant Scots actor/director ("My Name is Joe" and "Orphans"), is currently prosecuting them but good, in his controversial Venice Film Festival Grand Prize winner "The Magdalene Sisters." A Catholic himself, he was spurred by a BBC documentary ("Sex in a Cold Climate") on the subject, to bring knowledge of this "enormous injustice" to a wider audience. His film focuses on the years between 1964 and 1969 — when the rest of the so-called free world was experiencing the birth of Women's Lib — and tells the story of the 30,000-plus Irish women doomed to Magdalene slavery through the stories of four representative girls.

    By the '60s, the reasons for Magdalene incarceration had loosened so far as to include such ephemera as "being too pretty," thereby offering temptation to young men (a pre- emptive kind of rationale that seems all too familiar these days). That's the reason Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a vivacious orphan is spirited off to the Magdalenes, while Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is sent by her family after a cousin rapes her. Unmarried Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gives birth to a child who is immediately taken from her, but Crispina (Eileen Walsh) who is retarded, gets clandestine visits from her illegitimate son, whom she sees only through the laundry fence.

      The Magdalene Sisters
    Others in the institution range from teenagers to gray-haired biddies, who act as "capos" in return for small favors. The nuns (as personified by Sister Bridget in a scalding performance by veteran Geraldine McEwan) are sterile, cruel bullies who torture the girls and also turn a blind eye when sexually predatory priests routinely rape their wards. This is the redemption delivered in lieu of the salvation promised.

    As if the work itself were not hardship enough, the girls are subjected to every form of humiliation — naked parades before jeering nuns, heads shaved for minor infractions, their very names taken away. (Rose is arbitrarily renamed Patricia.) By setting the film in the mid-20th century, Mullan allows for escape, and some girls did succeed. But in truth, the last Magdalene, which closed in 1996 (!), still had 40 to 50 inmates, all ill-equipped for any kind of life outside.

    This is not an easy film to watch — and the Catholic Church would certainly rather that no one did — but Mullan's scathing attack definitely shines a klieg light on these all- too-recent events. The acting throughout is superlative, even if occasionally the prison paradigm wears on the audience. Although I've singled out five actors, this is truly an ensemble effort in the finest sense of that much overused term.

    The stories of the girls told in this film are based on hundreds of real Magdalene cases. The Irish government is still trying to help Magdalene babies — wrested from their unwed mothers at birth — find those birth mothers who might still be living. Mullan's film offers the church a chance to take responsibility for its crimes against these thousands of women. The church's sole response has been to condemn "The Magdalene Sisters" and Peter Mullan.

    AUGUST 1, 2003

    Reader comments on The Magdalene Sisters:

  • Church, State, Slavery   from McDermott, Aug 14, 2003
  • Re: Church, State, Slavery   from J. Vance, Sep 16, 2003
  • I saw the movie   from Angela, Aug 29, 2003
  • The Magdalene Sisters   from J. Vance, Sep 16, 2003
  • [no subject]   from vitai georgina, Jan 4, 2004
  • [no subject]   from contance, Apr 11, 2006
  • 67,000 women sterilized   from Veronica, Jul 10, 2006
  • Magdalene Sisters song   from Hans Meijer, Mar 2, 2007
  • The Magdelene Sisters   from mikki, Jul 8, 2007
  • Magdalen Sisters   from wendy, May 21, 2009

  • Post a comment on "The Magdalene Sisters"