The International Writers Magazine
DVD Review

The Magdalene Sisters
Dir. Peter Mullan
Dan Schneider Review

Brutally psychopathic lesbian nuns and lascivious paedophile priests, what else is new? No, seriously, watching the DVD of The Magdalene Sisters was like a time machine for me.

Not that I was ever an unwed mother in an Irish hellhole run by religious extremists, but I did grow up in a poor neighborhood that was patrolled by psychotic cops that made the bad cops in Serpico look virginal, by comparison. Those cops, as the nuns in the film, ruled by terror and brutality. People were assaulted and humiliated and denigrated for the least of reasons.

This film could have easily veered off track into a running anti-Catholic joke or screed, but its artistic ‘reality’ is too levelheaded to allow that. Basically, last century in Ireland was a misogynist’s utopia. Young women were horded off to laundries to do slave labor for the Roman Catholic church, under the guidance of nuns from the Magdalene sisterhood, whose hope was to redeem prostitutes, unwed mothers, and other ‘fallen girls’. The three main characters are based upon real women, although for dramatic purposes their tales are condensed into the 1960s (the DVD’s documentary Sex In A Cold Climate shows the women the lead characters were based on, and their age range varies over a quarter of a century). Why the 1960s and not the 1940s seems only to be for the belief among many artists that this was the last period of social justice in the world. The three girls represent different archetypes of ‘fallen women’; the orphan and would be sexual temptress Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), the unwed mother Rose- called Patricia by the nuns (Dorothy Duffy), whose child is taken away from her by her parents, and rape/incest victim Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), whose brutalizing by her cousin, is followed by her parents shipping away.

Some women get out, some end up as spinsters, or joining the convent. One girl who runs away, named Una, is abandoned by her family and sadistic father, and turns to the nunhood for whatever comforts she can receive. We also see a deluded old spinster, who acted as a spy for the nuns, who eventually dies still in the laundry. The spinster is coldly treated by an embittered Margaret, whose own escape plans have been thwarted and she therefore suffered brutality. She tells the old woman that she doesn’t give a shit about her, and neither do the nuns, then chides the dying woman for being so stupid for wishing to die in the nuns’ care, rather than a hospital. When the moment finally occurs, we find a moment of humanity, as Margaret kisses the dead woman’s forehead.

Moments like that raise the script above mere screeding. Another great moment comes when Bernadette has an opportunity to escape the walled in fortress the nuns run at an open gate. Outside, a car stops and a man asks to give her a lift. She refuses, and returns, still fearing men because of the rape. Later, however, when he brother finally rescues her, she stands up to him when he asks her to hurry up packing. She yells, ‘Where have you been for four years?’ He replies, ‘Growing up!’ She screams, That’s not a good enough answer!’, and it’s then we see that, even though she’s leaving, the nuns have won, they have embittered her for life. Yet, the complexities of this young woman are brought to a head as she is leaving, and forces the head nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) to walk around her, by embarrassing her in front of the Archbishop. Another good moment comes when a psychotic young mother, Crispina (Eileen Walsh), sees a priest who forced her into fellating him, runs naked from a festivity due to some poison oak or ivy that Bernadette place in the washing machines. She screams, ‘You are not a man of God!’ over and over before a stunned crowd, and the nuns, in vengeance, ship her off to a looney bin, where she commits suicides a few years later. After shipping her off they don’t even inform her family, so when her sister and child come to see her at a gate (as they’ve done for years) they don’t even realize she’s gone, until Rose attempts to tell them. She is then brutalized by Sister Bridget, who is shown as evil incarnate -- as well as a money-grubbing reprobate. That is the final straw, as she and Margaret decide to break out that night, and do. A funny scene comes when Margaret scares a pair of lesbian nuns back into their rooms by waving a candlestick at them. The pair had earlier forced many girls to strip so that they could ogle the girls’ breasts, asses, and pubic hair, and then decide which of them had the best of each. Margaret also savages Sister Bridget, and the two escape, but not before the toll on each girl is displayed.
The Catholic Church in Ireland condemned this 2003 film, which is no surprise, but given its problems with paedophilic priests, does anyone watching this really believe the claims of sadistic lesbian nuns is NOT credible! That these Magdalene laundry camps were run until 1996 is amazing (in the worst sense), but all too emblemic of the evils of all religion -- from the Crusades and Inquisitions, Martin Luther to Torquemada, the Conquistadores and the Taliban. Writer/director Peter Mullan never veers into caricature, which says alot, given the subject matter, and the acting is utterly superb. McEwan, as Sister Bridget, reeks wickedry like few characters in film history, even Nurse Ratched, from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, seems kind-hearted by comparison. And this film is worlds better than a similarly-themed film from a few years ago, Girl, Interrupted, which seemed more like a chicks behind bars film. None of the actresses in The Magdalene Sisters are likely to become sex symbols, like the collagen lipped and breast enhanced Angelina Jolie. They are attractive, but real looking.

As for the DVD? There is no commentary, which is a shame, the only extra is the hour-long documentary Sex in A Cold Climate. While passable, it lacks the power of the film, which is a sterling example that art can be greatly artistic, while also being blatantly political. Would that more artists learned this lesson.

© Dan Schneider September 2006
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