The Magdalene Sisters

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE MAGDALENE SISTERS

7/10

Ireland (Ire/UK) 2002 : Peter MULLAN : 119 mins

There’s an old Fleet Street saying that runs something like “Just because it’s the Daily Telegraph, that doesn’t make it false.” Likewise, as the Pope’s stand against the impending Iraq atrocity indicates, just because the Vatican comes out against something that doesn’t make it inherently good. But when the Pontiff’s representatives offer comment on the arts, they do tend to serve as invaluable “reverse critics” – in terms of the cinema, they rank alongside the Evening Standard‘s Alexander Walker and the late Leslie Halliwell of Halliwell’s Film Guide – condemnation from these sources is as reliable as a glowing rave from any Pauline Kael or James Agee.

The Magdalene Sisters is a case in point – the subject of stiff papal disapproval after winning the top prize at the Venice film festival, it’s a powerful expose of the Catholic church’s shocking treatment of the women placed in their ‘care.’ ‘Magdalene’ convents – the last of which closed as recently as 1996 – were in effect religious workhouses, their hapless inmates (supposedly “fallen women”) kept in line by cruel nuns and forced to toil long (unpaid) hours in the laundry. Mullan’s film, which begins in County Dublin in 1964, follows four typical (but fictional) Magdalene girls: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), whose ‘crime’ is to have been raped by her cousin at a wedding party; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), whose dark good looks and sensuality are reckoned to be too much of a ‘temptation’ to the local menfolk; and a pair of “sinful” unmarried mothers – timid Patricia (Dorothy Duff), renamed Rose by stern head nun Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) and Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who shows signs of severe learning difficulties.

What develops is, in effect, a religious-tinged variant on the well-worn prison genre of movies like Escape From Alcatraz, complete with a terrifyingly cruel ‘governor’ and a victimised character so sympathetic and hapless they’re clearly doomed. There’s the inevitable cluster of tantalising brief escape-chances – a would-be absconder misses out on her chance for freedom by melodramatic seconds, while later another inmate spurns the opportunity offered by a carelessly unlocked door, too concerned for her fellow sufferers to make the break to freedom.

The structure of such films, of course, demands that the only successful escape must be kept until the end, robbing the drama of considerable suspense – the climax here, with Sister Bridget meeting her match in a physical tussle with firecracker Bernadette, tips over into the ‘kill-the-bitch’ territory of Misery and Fatal Attraction, emphasising just how dearly we want to see this pitiless tormentor get a taste of her own medicine. But there are many similarly powerful scenes – this is a strong story, very well told and featuring some outstanding performances: Margaret’s reticence means it takes some time for Duff to come into focus, but the wait proves worthwhile – her final confrontation with Sister Bridget is a classic – while McEwan, Walsh and Noone, meanwhile, make the absolute most out of their rather flashier roles and turn in utterly convincing and magnetic performances.

There’s no doubting the sincerity and anger burning that powers every scene The Magdalene Sisters, and Mullan, while he never quite matches the flair and impact of the opening wedding-party sequence (loud bodhran music drowns out the dialogue) directs with confidence and a strong eye for detail – in terms of the period ‘look’ and also of building up character. But hailing the film as a masterpiece – as many have done – seems to be going too far. Mullan doesn’t show do much to indicate the passage of time – in a virtual aside, Margaret mentions she’s been stuck in the convent for four years, though from what we’ve seen it’s been no more than a matter of weeks. And we don’t really need a close-up of Sister Bridget’s hands counting cash to indicate the mercenary streak to her character. Then again, the exact fate of that money is never made clear – does it really go to the “black babies” referred to by one of the nuns, or does it mainly go to keep the well-fed nuns in the luxury to which they’ve become accustomed?

Such oversights mean that, while very engaging and often harrowing as a drama, The Magdalene Sisters is unsatisfactory in terms of analysis or as a contribution to current debate. What is Mullan saying with this film – ‘Look how backward Ireland was in 1964’, or perhaps ‘The Catholic Church was corrupt, cruel and hypocritical’? Hardly big news, and in either case the finger is pointed (relatively safely) into the past, not into the many similar instances of injustice that are probably going on all over the world in 2003 – why was nobody lifting the lid on the situation back in the sixties and seventies, when decades of suffering might have been prevented?

And though the end-titles reveal that 30,000 women passed through Magdalene convents up till their closure in 1996, there’s no suggestion of who was to blame for these scandalous institutions’ survival. Instead Mullan makes his biggest mis-step, in an admission of deficient storytelling, inserts title-cards explaining what ‘happened’ to his four leading characters after the end of the narrative. It would have been much more helpful and satisfying if, instead of these phoney biographies, he’d told us more about the guilty parties responsible for this institutionalised injustice, and what happened to them.

25th February, 2003 (seen 24th February, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

click here to read the short version of this review