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On a single day in 1964, three girls are sent to one of the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland, run by the Sisters of Mercy on behalf of the Catholic Church. For different reasons, all of them are considered sexual troublemakers: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) was raped by her cousin and blamed for this by her family; Patricia (Dorothy Duffy) is an unmarried mother and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) was simply attracting too much interest from boys. However, far from a Christian haven, the asylum proves to be a virtual prison as the three are forced to slave all day in the laundry, beaten and humiliated.

Review by Jake Wilson:
Though the characters aren't based on specific real people, you could say that Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters does for the inmates of Ireland's Magdalene Asylums what Phillip Noyce's Rabbit Proof Fence did for the Stolen Generation in Australia. Both these films are historical expos looking back at the scandalous behaviour of authority figures who claimed to be acting in the best interest of their victims. Both tackle issues and events that remain deeply controversial (not surprisingly, Mullan's film was denounced by the Vatican). And because of this, both have attracted a level of acclaim possibly out of proportion to their strict merits as cinema. Basically what we have here is a fairly straightforward melodrama, pitting scatterbrained but innocent young women against tyrannical old nuns. In contrast to Noyce's deliberately heightened, 'mythic' storytelling, Mullan aims for hard-hitting but understated realism. Yet his crude moral ironies and stock characters are straight out of a Dickens novel: the suffering half-wit who pines for her lost child (Eileen Walsh) or Geraldine McEwan's hypocritical Sister Bridget, a stony-hearted miser who looks as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. The muckraking approach can't quite be called prurient (direct sexual abuse plays only a minor role) yet it's clear that Mullan's interest in this material stems from an awareness of how puritan faith and the corruptions of power can twist sexuality into hidden, torturous forms. Certain scenes attempt to explore the less obvious aspects of this theme, as when the nuns vindictively mock the girls' naked bodies. But in too many ways the film becomes an unthinking mirror image of the bad faith it attacks, as if Mullan (despite his strange cameo as an abusive father) were too busy preaching to heed his own message about the link between piety and sadism.

Review by Louise Keller:
A hard-hitting and profoundly moving story, The Magdalene Sisters is a superbly made film about the shocking treatment of young girls rejected from their families by the nuns of the infamous Magdalene homes in 19th Century Ireland. While writer/director Peter Mullan hones in on four individual stories, The Magdalene Sisters offers a disturbing insight into a misguided Catholic faith that uses guilt, penance and abuse (mental and physical) to punish the girls who had either been victims of rape, had a child out of wedlock or even simply had ‘attitude’. The opening sequence, in which we meet small town Irish lass Margaret at a family wedding, is striking. Almost no words are spoken: we witness how Margaret is raped and then how the story is recounted to her parents and the priest amid the percussive rhythms and music of the wedding celebrations. We then meet Bernadette, whose only crime is to talk to boys and then there is Rose, who has just given birth to an illegitimate baby. The Asylum is in fact a commercial laundry, camouflaged under a pretext of Christianity and aspirations to save these ‘fallen’ souls from going to hell. But hell is what it is, and the dark corridors and grim tones of the Sisters set the scene for what lies in store – a barrage of cruel and shameful treatment totally lacking humanity. The hard labour and psychological torture is intensified in a horrifying scene in which the nuns parade the young girls totally naked, and make fun of their physicality. The girl with the largest breasts, the biggest bottom, the hairiest and so forth, is singled out and ridiculed. Mullins concentrates on the experiences of the three newcomers, as well as that of troubled inmate Crispina, whose greatest comfort is in her St Christopher’s medal (her only possession) through which she emotionally communicates with her illegitimate son. When the medal is lost, subsequently stolen and then forcibly recovered, we are confronted by the harsh ‘fight for yourself’ attitude, which becomes a necessary survival tactic. Wonderful performances by the four young girls, and a chilling portrayal by thesp Geraldine McEwan, as the callous, heartless Sister Bridget who mis-uses her position and faith to devastating results. Newcomer Jane Noone is stunning as Bernadette and Eileen Walsh who plays the tragic Crispina was deservedly nominated as best newcomer at the 1999 British Independent Film Awards. Watch out for Peter Mullan’s cameo appearance as the cruel father whose fanatic and ill-advised faith replaces all sense of common decency. Devastating, and genuinely affecting, you will not easily forget The Magdalene Sisters.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Having spent six years in Catholic schools (in the UK) myself, three of them as boarder, I can attest to the need for some serious soul searching – whether imposed from outside or not. Peter Mullen’s film takes us into familiar enough territory, the wasteland of dried up souls who are so intent on their faith as to have lost all grasp of its fundamental tenet: compassion. Based on the conditions that prevailed at the real convents run by Magdalene Sisters in Ireland (finally closed in 1996), Mullan’s film is not particularly original, but it is clearly heartfelt. And the misguided, crudely religious nuns aren’t the only ones who draw our condemnation: so do the families of the thousands of ‘fallen’ (raped, pregnant, etc) girls who threw them into the Magdelene Asylums, where they did their penance – slave labour. Asylums indeed: the madness of the badness that was instituionalised by so called Christian practitioners is breathtaking. As a grim drama that shows the world what sort of things went on (it’s set in the mid to late 60s), the film is par for the course. As cinema, it is a little restrained by its monotony and its repetition of the single central subject, although the excellent technical aspects save it from tedium. It does engage us for much of the time, and the performances are shocking in their honesty, bravery and unflinching reality. It’s not enough for the Vatican to condemn this film: there have been too many similar stories around the world for the film to be simply dismissed. I’ve always felt that police who become criminals themselves are worse than other criminals, since they are the ones who swear to uphold the law. There is something unforgivable about nuns and priests failing the compassion test, for similar reasons.

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CAST: Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Frances Healy

PRODUCER: Frances Higson

DIRECTOR: Peter Mullan

SCRIPT: Peter Mullan


EDITOR: Colin Monie

MUSIC: Craig Armstrong


RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes




VIDEO RELEASE: October 8, 2003

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