starring Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy
written and directed by Peter Mullan
by Walter Chaw Most discussions of Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters will probably focus on the extent to which the story that it relates is inspired by truth; the Catholic Church has been predictably swift in its blanket condemnation, while the film's supporters have presented actual "Magdalene Laundry" survivors who attest that the reality was actually much grimmer. The skeleton truth of the film, then, falls somewhere between those extremes, and its presentation, likewise, vacillates between elegant reserve and keening hysteria. The picture is a fictional treatment of the forced labour of tens of thousands of "wayward" girls in the convents of the Irish Catholic order of the Sisters of the Magdalene--compelled through intimidation and abuse to literally wash their sins away with backbreaking work scrubbing butcher's whites and the like under Dickensian conditions. When it works (as in a prologue and conclusion that mute dialogue in an approximation of collective guilt), it works on the strength of Mullan's smooth visual sensibility and narrative acumen. And when it doesn't work (as in a subplot concerning a priest stridently not a "man of God"), the film tends to grate and, worse, cast doubt on the extent to which Mullan's willing to go to take sides on his subject.
Objectivity not a requirement, of course, protesting too much does tend to erode trust--enough so in The Magdalene Sisters that its key moment, its best moment, is when evil head nun Sister Bridget (an exceptional Geraldine McEwan) sheds a few tears at the end of a screening of The Bells of St. Mary's. That moment of humanity is arguably the only one offered Mullan's pack of monstrous nuns (Ken Russell, eat your heart out), and offers a glimpse not merely into the depths of self-deception involved in something as heinous as the Laundry, but the ways The Magdalene Sisters could have been better as well, had it the courage of greater balance. There's a Nietzsche quote for every occasion--the one that applies here has something to do with hunting monsters, looking into abysses, and the abysses looking into you.
Following the story of three composite girls (mother out of wedlock Rose (Dorothy Duffy); too-flirtatious Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone); and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), raped by a cousin at a wedding), the picture is something of a boot-camp drama--complete with dressings-down and sadistic drilling--grafted onto a concentration-camp melodrama, culminating in an involuntary shearing that finds Mullan indulging in a distracting nod to Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. The quiet one who goes insane is Crispina (Eileen Walsh), gifted with both of the film's most frantic (and hence, ineffective) sequences, marking the picture as passionate without question, but perhaps passionate to a fault.
The Magdalene Sisters finds itself at the centre of several controversies and controversial institutions--bought by Miramax, condemned by the Catholic Church, and perhaps the very definition of a picture with the difficult task of finding its own voice independent of the conflagration. To the end that it succeeds or fails on its own merits as a fiction, the picture is formulaic to a fault and betrays a certain confidence in execution that locates the work as comfortable within Miramax's roster of "major indies." Where The Magdalene Sisters earns its recommendation is in, probably most surprisingly, its sympathy for the power and attraction of Catholicism--in the poignant inability for Margaret to flee her captivity, given the chance, and for the sort of grace demonstrated in the end by a distant cousin who embodies the ideals of any world religion unmarred by the greed and ignorance of the custodians of their gilded, empty tabernacles. Originally published: August 1, 2003.