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The Magdalene Sisters (R)
PFP Films Ltd. / Miramax Films
Official Site
Director: Peter Mullan
Producer: Frances Higson
Written by: Peter Mullan
Cast: Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh

Rating: out of 5


Imagine how hard it must be to be the V.P.—sorry, Archbishop, in charge of P.R. for the Catholic Church. A movie like this must make your life a living hell. I, for one, certainly hope that it does.

For example, in an interview with Warren Curry, 8/1/03, on www.cinemaspeak.com, Mullan relays a story where Vatican priests attempted to influence the film’s performance at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, videotaping filmgoers with the threat of eternal damnation. I am not kidding, though I can’t imagine that even the Catholic Church could be so transparent in unintentionally validating the need for this very film. Fascinating reading! You thought that the brouhaha over Mel Gibson’s film was entertaining? I sure hope that someone caught this incident on tape and we will get to see it, eventually! There is a larger struggle here that is beyond the scope of this review. This film serves as a chilling cautionary tale of the dangers where government allows religious institutions to operate unquestioned.

In any case, this film is “based on a true story” of the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland, the last of which closed in 1996. Maybe you should look twice at that date. These were Catholic asylums where girls were committed by their families, doing hard exhausting physical work under harsh conditions in order to absolve themselves of one “sin” or another, invariably sexual in nature. Mullan, who viewed a documentary, Sex In A Cold Climate, on some of the survivors of these institutions, was moved to create a movie that works as a sort of morality play. Through the suffering of the fictionalized accounts of four young women, and the ironic brutality of those nuns and priests whose job it was to “help” them, he arrives at some wonderful insight as to the corrupting effect of religious power on those who wield it. All of these characters are probably composite representatives of some of the more egregious cases of abuse that one might care to watch on the screen. As with all fictions that are “based on a true story,” you must wonder where the truth stops and interpretation starts. All I can say is that I have read of many Catholics complaining of “anti-Catholicism,” but no one seems to question the veracity of the events depicted in this film. Now, there is a truly scary thought: that Mullan may have even pulled his punches for the sake of the greater story.

I had some dread that this film was going to be a relentless and sensational melodrama that further exploited these poor women, another agonizing entry to the “women in prison” genre. I was amazed. The Magdalene Sisters is simply beautiful. Mullan has written a film that he directs in a purely, almost obsessively, visual style. From the opening scene, where all dialogue is obscured by a wedding band, you can forget about straining to interpret the dialogue. Instead, watch for the smallest visual clues, which tell the whole story. The music, deftly provided by Craig Armstrong, is absolutely unobtrusive. Nigel Willoughby gets some shots that are so stunning that they would detract from the narrative, except that they are the narrative. Together, they make the violence almost parenthetical; they generally show you just enough so that you get the point. What emerges is an infinitely more compelling indictment of religious cruelty, much more effective than a speech or maybe even the power of the documentary itself, because the visual narrative works so well on a subconscious level.

The acting also shows sublime restraint, as well as the anticipated dramatic outrage. Duff (Margaret) gives her character an inventive and resolute dedication to a morality beyond the sham of the asylum. Duffy (Rose/Patricia) never overplays the beauty and frailty of her character, a woman of hope. Noone (Bernadette) conveys an anger which is truly frightening, illuminating another predictable reaction to such abuse. Walsh (Crispina/Harriet), has the most incredibly difficult and pivotal role. Her performance, though not perfect, is the one that nails this tragedy into your memory. McEwan (Sister Bridget) portrays the evil head of the asylum with all the relentless psychotic intensity the role demands. There are times when these superb actresses go over the top and lose the reality of the moment. There are instances where the narrative stops for a deeply symbolic moment, and then the film discards all pretense of subtlety. These are the moments that serve to underline the message, and they make it unmistakably clear that there is a message. Trust me. You will know.

I can’t exactly tell you that message, you must interpret for yourself. Please permit me to indulge myself in one of my favorite quotes, particularly relevant to this film:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."—Steven Weinberg, Physicist and Nobel Laureate

On a practical note, this film is truly entertaining. Girls, this is much more than the frustrating and exploitive tear-jerker that you may fear. Guys, make no mistake, this is not a date movie. See it anyway. The exercise you will get in the art of understanding and compassion will do you good.

—Steven Harding

 

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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