The Magdalene Sisters Review

It was hard not to have high expectations for The Magdalene Sisters - even if the Golden Lion it won at the 2002 Venice Film Festival may have been a calculated riposte to the Vatican (which condemned the film on the front page of its newspaper L'Osservatore Romano), its writer-director Peter Mullan had already revealed a very considerable talent on both sides of the camera, as the lead in Ken Loach's devastating My Name Is Joe (1998), and as writer-director of the wincingly funny black comedy about bereavement, Orphans (1997).

Mullan's second feature was directly inspired by the 1998 Channel Four documentary Sex in a Cold Climate (about the Magdalene laundries), and indirectly by Mullan's experience of working in community theatre groups alongside women who turned out to be battered wives. He was fascinated by the psychology of people constantly returning to a situation that they knew deep down could only get worse, but which they'd convinced themselves was a momentary aberration: their partners, much like the Magdalene nuns, loved them really and only punished them for their own perceived transgressions.

One of the film's most shocking revelations is not so much that the events happened well within living memory (although the film is set in 1964, the last Magdalene laundry closed in 1996) but that the reasons that often very young girls were effectively imprisoned for years (if not lifetimes) often said far more about the warped moral standards of their society than about anything that they'd done themselves.

Indeed, they may not have done anything at all - of the film's four principal characters, Margaret's "crime" was to be raped by her cousin while Bernadette is imprisoned pre-emptively because the way she shyly looks at the local village boys is considered clinching evidence of an immoral mind that needs scrubbing clean. Their two companions, Rose and Crispina, have had babies out of wedlock - but there's every possibility that this may have been in similar circumstances to Margaret (and of course abortion was absolutely not an option).

Mullan throws down the gauntlet right from the start by emphasising these blatant injustices - and it's hard to imagine anyone (with the possible exception of the woman who shouted "Jesus died for your sins! Remember that!" at the departing audience at the screening I attended) not sharing his horror and mounting anger not just at how these women ended up in the care of the Magdalene nuns but also at the constant barrage of petty physical and psychological cruelties meted out by the ironically-titled Sisters of Mercy.

Many of these are very hard to watch - Rose weeping in pain as her breasts start lactating (a supremely pointless biological gesture, as her child was forcibly removed from the date of birth), Bernadette having a haircut so severe that blood trickles down her face, Crispina having to communicate with her son via sign language as she can only see him from a distance, above all the scene where two nuns strip their charges and compare their breasts, buttocks and pubic hair, while getting increasingly irritated that their shivering, humiliated victims aren't sharing the "joke".

What makes the film more disturbing than the superficially similar Scum (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and other dramas of incarceration and brainwashing is that these physical and psychological tortures are meted out not just by women but by people who are considered the embodiment of saintliness. In many cases, you can even believe that they've sincerely convinced themselves that they're doing this to redeem fallen women in the eyes of God - and you can equally believe that the inmates also believe this, which is why they're passive to a degree that non-Catholics find hard to fully understand.

The religious element also explains why these women don't attempt to escape or summon help - short-term relief will be more than counterbalanced by an afterlife of eternal damnation. It's a passionate, angry film, because Mullan (a Catholic himself) is all too aware that although the Magdalene laundries may be no more, there are plenty of individuals only too happy to cite religion (however twisted and self-serving their interpretation) as justification for the total subjugation of the female sex - for a very recent example, look no further than the Taliban's treatment of women in pre-2001 Afghanistan.

But the film is unbalanced by its passion - Mullan is so certain that we'll share his point of view that he forgets to give the other side an equally persuasive voice. For all the undoubted excellence of Geraldine McEwan's performance as the terrifying Sister Bridget, we ultimately learn very little about what makes her tick - aside from repeated references to her greed and hypocrisy (most memorably when she weeps at the sentimental pieties of the "fillum" The Bells of St Mary's in between bouts of thrashing her victims), Mullan never explains convincingly just why she and her fellow nuns behaved so viciously, and the film suffers from this.

Although several scenes are immensely powerful, there's nothing quite as flesh-crawling as that unforgettable moment in Priest (1994) where a man who has been sexually abusing his daughter justifies his behaviour in the confessional - which made me wonder how much more effective The Magdalene Sisters might have been had it been scripted by the vastly more experienced (and equally Catholic) Jimmy McGovern.

But this is a relatively minor quibble, and offset by the general excellence of the acting (Nora-Jane Noone is a real find) and Mullan's punchy, intelligent direction. Although occasionally unsubtle (the nuns eating hearty meals while the inmates sup gruel), he achieves most of his effects through the cumulative build-up of tiny but telling details, and many scenes end with expectations being shattered via a series of sickeningly effective punchlines that continue right up to the very last shot.

Mullan was apparently worried that the Vatican condemnation would lead to protests similar to those that torpedoed The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), but in this case it's hard to imagine more effective PR (unlike the situation with Martin Scorsese's film, Mullan has reams of well-documented case histories to point towards). It's easy to see why the Catholic Church loathes it (especially given its perfectly-timed release in the wake of current paedophile priest scandals), but equally easy to see why it's been a phenomenal hit in Catholic countries.

At the time of writing, it has apparently been seen by one in four of the Irish population and provoking the kind of heated debate that in itself should hopefully ensure that the situations Mullan so vividly portrays are never allowed to happen again. The Magdalene Sisters is a brave and outspoken film that may also have a lasting impact on the wider world outside - and how many other contemporary British films can make that claim?

Overall

8

out of 10

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