Dir: Peter Mullan. UK-Ireland. 2002. 118mins
Shocking true events are transformed into a powerful and moving human drama in The Magdalene Sisters. The second feature from writer-director Peter Mullan, the film is an angry cry from the heart rendered all the more effective by its restraint and burning sense of injustice at the evils perpetrated in the name of God. The combination of controversial subject matter, excellent performances and Mullan's growing international reputation should help build an audience for a small, serious-minded endeavour, especially in territories where the church still holds a grip on the life of the nation. It will have to fight for a commercial foothold but Mullan's award-winning Orphans (1998) was a surprisingly robust box-office performer and festival screenings at Venice (where it premiered in competition), Toronto, Cork and New York should help build critical support before it is released in Ireland in October by Momentum Pictures (which also release in the UK during the early part of 2003).
Set in rural Ireland in 1964, the film uses the stories of three young women to illustrate the horrors of the Magdalene Asylum, an institution straight from the pages of Dickens. Run by Catholic nuns, the Asylum was where fallen women and unwed mothers were sent to (literally) wash away their sins with backbreaking work in the laundry. Raped by her cousin at a family wedding, Margaret (Duff) finds her refusal to stay silent means she is dispatched to Magdalene. The only sin of orphan Bernadette (Noone) is to ripen into womanhood and represent the kind of temptation that is best hidden away. An unwed mother, Rose (Duffy) is forced to give up her child for adoption before she too is sent to the Asylum.
Presided over by Sister Bridget (a steely, chilling McEwan), the Asylum is a living hell that promises salvation but practises abuse, hypocrisy and humiliation. The girls are treated like unpaid slaves or prisoners except there is no crime and no fixed sentence. They work endless hours on starvation rations, face brutal punishment for any act of insubordination and know that their families have disowned them. Crispina (a heartbreaking Walsh) is even driven to suicide as her humanity is gradually eroded by the relentless abuse of a priest.
Aware of the potent nature of the subject matter, Mullan feels no need to indulge in crass editorialising and merely lets the events speak for themselves. Like the Italian neo-realist films of the post-War years, The Magdalene Sisters offers the sense of eavesdropping on closely observed moments from real life. Mullan has a wonderful eye for the telling visual detail or the vivid image that can convey so much more than pages of dialogue or explanation. At the morning meal the girls consume a slim helping of porridge before the camera reveals the nuns tucking in to slabs of bread and jam, mountains of sausages and mounds of bacon. In one extraordinary moment, the monstrous Sister Bridget is seen reflected in the retina of a girl's blood-caked eye.
A litany of the terrors that befell the girls, the film also reveals the way in which the church and the general population conspired to make them outcasts who frequently believed that they deserved to suffer. Filled with tragedy and heartache, the film also has its moments of humour and offers a growing glimmer of hope as Margaret, at least, refuses to accept her status and quietly plots to defy the authority of the sisters. Ultimately, the film becomes a testimony to the way the human spirit can survive even the most appalling hardships. Closing titles reveal the fates of the girls in later life and explain that the last of the asylums was only closed in 1996.
Prod co: PPF Films/Temple Films
Uk/Ire dist: Momentum Pictures
Int'l sales: WIld Bunch
Prod: Frances Higson
Co-prod: Alan J (Willy) Wands
Exec prods: Ed Guiney, Paul Trijbits
Cinematography: Nigel Willoughby
Ed: Colin Monie
Music: Craig Armstrong
Main cast: Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh