Film Reviews


By • Aug 1st, 2003 •

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MPAA: Rated R for / Running time: 119 min.

Dickens updated. No, worse! Compared to life at the Magdalene Sisters convent-run sweatshops, Oliver Twist had it easy. Up front, you’ll cringe through this relentlessly harrowing but utterly riveting rendering of what writer/director Peter Mullan termed the Catholic Church’s “dirty little secret”: the actual illegal incarceration, exploitation and systematic abuse of young women in the now infamous Magdalene Asylums in Ireland.

Though fictional, Mullan, a Scot, maintains that the film, winner of the Venice festival’s Golden Lion “is entirely based on the truth – if anything, it was softened a bit in order not to give the audience too hard a time.” Barbarous as conditions were, the harsh reality of the inmates’ lives “made the film look like TOY STORY 2. I couldn’t possibly have made it up. I’m not that good a dramatist.”

And the reality—from the 1960s to the end of this past century, thousands of “fallen women” passed through the convent homes (and here, think POW camps) where they were forced to work as slaves, laboring under the harshest conditions in the Church’s industrial laundries. Their term of servitude: indefinite.

Plot: 1964, Dublin. Four teenaged girls are forcibly banished into the custody of the asylum (in most instances by their own families) to correct their ostensibly sinful behavior. And their sexual misdeeds? Margaret (Duff) is raped by a cousin at a family wedding and makes the mistake of talking about it (her attacker, of course, gets off scott free). Bernadette (Noone), a free-spirited orphan, is deemed too attractive to boys (who merely flirt with her from afar). And Rose (Duffy) and the simple-minded Crispina (Walsh) have illegitimate babies which are forcibly taken from them and farmed out for adoption.

What they face: heads shaved, forced to wear rough smocks, and regularly beaten and humiliated—even sexually abused at times by priests, as they work at the thankless—and unpaid— task of laboring in silence 52 weeks a year, cleaning the clothes of the clergy, symbolically washing away their sins.

Into this equation of persecution, place the convent’s chief honcho, Geraldine McEwan’s Sister Bridget (think Nurse Ratchet), a sadistic blob of malevolent protoplasm who wants her charges to work “beyond human endurance…to rid themselves of sins” or else face “hell on earth.” But she doesn’t torment the girls alone. She has lots of help from her coterie of similarly obsessed nuns who relish playing such humiliating games as having the inmates strip, where they’re judged for the biggest (breasts and bottoms) and most (pubic hair). Escape? That route is practically unthinkable, since most of the inmates are kept in states of abject fear and dependency. Yet, as the film unfolds, some do manage.

The Bad News: Just one criticism. Two hours of unrelenting drear, of doom-and-gloom, are a bit much to sit through without squirming. At times, I felt as if I were watching daily internment proceedings at Dachau—but without the gassings.

The Good News:
Nevertheless, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. (You won’t either!) This is a film that has to be seen. And for many many reasons. For one, the acting—which at no time is mawkish or anything but highly believable. in a remarkable depiction of the banality of evil, McEwan is not only wondrously horrendously hateful, she’s wondrous—as is every last member of the cast, including the director himself, in a cameo. Especially worthy of note are the four victimized young girls, Anne-Marie Duff, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh and Nora-Jane Noone in her debut film performance. In all, the extremely well-chosen cast, the flawless photography and the remarkably fine score are perfectly in synch with Mullan’s fine-tuned direction. There are no false notes.

Incidentally, in point of fact, as many as 30,000 women went through the Magdalene homes. Many died in them. At the film’s finale, a legend notes that the last home closed in 1996… …and not a moment too soon.

Background Trivia: Mullan first learned of the Asylums’ existence—and of “the tremendous collusion between the Church, State & family” from watching Steve Humphries’ documentary “Sex in a Cold Climate,” airing in 2000 for Britain’s Channel 4, which “was the first major TV expose of what went on behind those high walls.” There is also a play, a book and an earlier TV film called “Sisters,” which aired on the BBC.

Since The Magdelene Sisters appearance at various film festivals, it caused a furor (denounced by the Vatican, and all but ignored by the Catholic Church in Ireland, where the film is set). But controversial as it is, this brilliant, chilling exposé of Church-sanctioned oppression wasn’t meant as an anti-Catholic diatribe. Rather, Mullan, a Scot and former Catholic, has said the film is against theocracies of any sort, Christian or otherwise. “I would like to think that the Catholic Church has the guts to stand up, admit its mistakes, compensate the victims and ensure that it never happens again.”

Awards & Nominations:

Newport Int’l Film Festival(2003) – Jury Award Best Feature Film
Toronto Int’l Film Festival(2002): Discovery Award
Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion(2002) (Best feature film)

BAFTA(2003): Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film
Film Award Best Original Screenplay
European Film Awards(2002): Best Film

Geraldine McEwan (Sister Bridget);
Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret);
Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette);
Dorothy Duffy (Rose/ Patricia);
Eileen Walsh ( Crispina);
Mary Murray (Una);
Britta Smith (Katy);
Frances Healy (Sister Jude);
Eithne McGuinness (Sister Clementine);
Phyllis MacMahon (Sister Augusta);
Rebecca Walsh (Josephine);
Eamonn Owens (Eamonn, Margaret’s brother);
Chris Simpson (Brendan);
Sean Colgan (Seamus);
Daniel Costello (Father Fitzroy)

Directed/written by Peter Mullan.
Producer: Frances Higson;
Cinematographer: Nigel Willoughby;
Editor: Colin Monie;
Prod. Design: Mark Leese;
Music: Craig Armstrong.

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