The Magdalene Sisters,
119 mins, rated MA, opening in cinemas nationwide on 17 April 2003
Rated - SIMMERING
Imagine a place where, until the 1970s, women could be imprisoned and
enslaved, abused and degraded, forced to do hard manual labour, not
allowed any contact with their families – and not even allowed to talk
to each other?
What kind of country would allow this? Which third world
dictatorship or hard-line Stalinist regime would tolerate such
inhumanity? It was Ireland.
The Magdalene Sisters tells the story of the Magdalene Asylums, the
nuns who ran them and the women and girls who worked in them. The
Magdalene homes were set up in the 19th century as a refuge for
prostitutes and “fallen” women. By the 20th century, they were
run by the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy. Young girls
were sent to the Asylums by their families or by orphanages and forced
to work in laundries to atone for their “sins.” Their sins could
be anything from having a child out of wedlock to being too pretty or
too simple-minded to avoid “moral danger.”
This film is not a documentary – although one inspired it. Sex in
a Cold Climate, made by Steve Humphries for the UK’s Channel 4,
recently brought the lives of the Magdalene woman to the public’s
notice. Writer, director and actor Peter Mullen (he was Joe in My
Name is Joe, Loach, 1998) saw it and wanted to bring the story to a
Mullen has made a powerful dramatic film. He focuses on the
stories of four women. Margaret has been raped, and makes the
mistake of telling her family. Rose has had an illegitimate
child. Bernadette is an orphan and is a bit too attractive to the
local boys. Simple-minded Crispina is already working in the
laundries as the film opens.
It’s a superb cast. The four girls give sensitive and moving
performances. But Geraldine McEwan, as Sister Bridget, impresses
most. She plays the sadistic and cruel nun with a glimmer of
humanity, never descending into caricature. In one scene the nuns
screen a “filum” as a Christmas treat. It is The Bells of St
Mary’s (McCarey, 1945), with Ingrid Bergman as a nun. We see how
Sister Bridget once saw herself, and we see what she has become.
She sees it too.
Both direction and production design are sparse and simple. The
camera takes the viewpoint of a 5th girl, living and working alongside
all the other Magdalene girls.
But ethically, Mullen is walking a tightrope. He has said of his
film: “It’s a drama, it’s a fiction, but is inspired by their
stories”. If these are composite characters, then I think he has
stepped over the line at the film’s end by allowing some happy endings
and inventing a “what happened next” story for each of the four
girls. That’s one of the few false notes in the film. The
other involves a scene of humiliation for a priest, which descends into
The Magdalene Sisters won the Golden Lion at Venice and played to
packed houses in Ireland last year. It has been criticised by the
Vatican as untruthful and anti-clerical. According to newspaper
reports, efforts to get proper compensation for these women are being
resisted. The grounds? They (or their parents) consented to their
entry into the privately run Magdalene Asylums.
It is estimated that 30,000 woman were detained in the Asylums in
Ireland. There were Magdalene laundries in Britain, too, and the
Sisters of Mercy ran laundries in North and South America, France, and
Australia. At the film’s screening I sat in front of a veteran of
one such institution in Queensland. We need to hear their stories.
© Michèle M Asprey 2003
This review is copyright. You must not use any part without my