Doodad Kind of Town

Couting down the Zeroes – 2002: The Magdalene Sisters
June 3, 2009, 10:30 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

(This post also appears today at Film for the Soul, where my fellow cinephile, Ric Burke is hosting a terrfic series called “Counting Down the Zeroes,” a comprehensive look back at the last decade in film. He’s currently up to 2002. Be sure to visit his lively and incisive blog regularly in the weeks to come as this ambitious series continues.)

My reaction to Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters” is complicated, at best.

On the one hand: as a former Catholic with strong opinions on the patriarchal repressiveness of the Church, I’m all in favor of exposing the worst abuses that have been committed in its name. And this harrowing drama about the forced incarceration of “fallen girls”in 1960s Dublin is an expose, and then some. After seeing it the first time, I literally had nightmares for a week.

On the other hand: as an artistic achievement, the film leaves something to be desired. The subject matter is sufficiently sensational that even a workmanlike writer-director such as Mullan can easily mine it for appropriate shock value. But one wonders how much more resonant the film might have been if Mullan had troubled himself to go deeper than merely depicting abuses and had investigated the pathologies that enabled such abuse to occur in the first place.

“The Magdalene Sisters” follows the stories of three young women in early 1960s Dublin who are sent to a institution known as a ‘Magdalene asylum’ where “by prayer, hard work, and cleanliness,”they can hope to earn absolution for their sexual sins, real or perceived as those sins may be. The wan and wide-eyed Margaret (Anne Marie Duff) is sent away by her family after she is raped by a cousin during a wedding celebration; her rapist apparently walks away unpunished. Another, Rose (Dorothy Duff), is taken there after giving birth to a baby boy out of wedlock. The third, Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone) is a saucy and spirited orphanage girl, given to flirting with the boys on the other side of the playground fence, even though she has yet to so much as kiss one of them. Nevertheless, her good looks and friendliness are deemed to be such a provocation to men that she must be taken out of the greater world before she succumbs to temptation.

In the Magdalene asylums found throughout Ireland at the time, young women such as these were forced to work in Dickensian laundries run by the (so-called) Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters filled their coffers with cash for their laundry services, while the women who performed them received nothing but a coarse, shapeless uniform, a meagre portion of food and a hard bed to sleep on. Some were forced to remain in the asylums for years until a family member would come to fetch them, some even stayed for life. Many tried to escape – if caught, the Sisters would beat them savagely and forcibly shave their heads. Those who stayed were forced to endure hours of daily hard labor in the laundries, plus ritual humiliation at the hands of the nuns. One scene in the film depicts the girls being forced to strip naked and run in place while two sisters humiliate them by laughing uproariously over which one has the biggest bottom, the biggest bush, and so on.

All of this is true, and all of it is horrifying. In fact, the somber mood of “The Magdalene Sisters” is established right from the appearance of the title card. The screen is filled with rows and rows of names – names of women who were incarcerated in the Magdalene asylums. The shot gives the distinct feeling of a war memorial, where you’re staggered by the seeming endless list of the fallen.

And while it’d be hard to overstate the heinousness of this abusive system, Mullan gives it a fair shot. To his credit, he creates an oppressive atmosphere in which we truly do feel that we’ve entered a living hell. The girls’ hopelessness is palpable. When Noone tries to escape one night, you feel yourself wanting to get out of there with her.

But there are a few too many shots of the girls sleeping on their dormitory beds just beneath large signs proclaiming “God is Good” or “God is Just” – ironic juxtaposition such as this only really works the first time. And true though it may be, the contrast of the girls slurping their thin breakfast gruel with scenes of the nuns tucking into platters of bacon and thickly sliced bread with jam would be more effective if it didn’t feel borrowed from every film version of a Dickens novel that you’ve already seen. When one inmate turns on the priest who sexually abused her, she screams “You’re not a man of God!” so many times in the exact same voice that I found myself talking back to the TV: “You’re right! He’s not a man of God! We get it! Move on!”

Geraldine McEwan’s Sister Bridget comes perilously close to being a stereotypical cartoon of a mean-and-evil nun.” Even as she wields her strap or her razor, she’s not nearly as frightening as she is predictable. And in the Christmas scene, as McEwan weeps huge, wet, hypocritical tears over “The Bells of St. Marys”, it’s hard not to think “I saw that coming.”

What Mullan lacks in subtlety as a filmmaker, he makes up for in graceful efficiency and some well-chosen visual images. The montage which accompanies Sister Bridget’s introductory speech to the new inmates deftly lays out all facets of the injustice visited on the Magdalene inmates in a few brief minutes. We see their personal belongings taken away (stripping them of their identity), women at work in the laundries using archaic irons and wringers (some of whom are grey-haired, indicating they’ve been at this work for many years) and finally, the Sisters’ account book and biscuit tins being stuffed with cash (indicating that the Sisters are profiting from the inmates’ forced labor.) Another masterful montage depicts a desolate Christmas in the asylum, where only a tattered paper chain decorates the dormitory, and the gift of a single orange is left on each girl’s empty bed.

There’s also a quietly rendered but powerful scene in which Margaret almost escapes, but reconsiders. Finding the garden gate unlocked, she slips outside and stops a passing car. But when the young man behind the wheel offers a ride, she demurs. As she hesitates momentarily in the gateway, we can see her weighing her choices – there’s oppression of one kind within the asylum, but oppression of another kind outside, where like all Irish Catholic women, she’ll be forever subordinate to men. Margaret chooses the asylum in a scene that delicately prefigures her ultimate fate: a brother will bring her home later that year, and according to the closing titles, she will never marry.

The actresses who play the young inmates are fine, especially Noone whose Bernadette is at once fiery and frightened, cunning and preternaturally sensual. You can see why the nuns are dead-set on breaking her spirit, and at the same time, you know they won’t succeed.

Mullan based “The Magdalene Sisters” on a 1998 British documentary, “Sex in a Cold Climate,” which you can watch in its entirety here. It’s clear he invented very little in his own screenplay; virtually every scene of abuse in his film is based on a specific remembrance of the women interviewed in the documentary. Even the stories of the main characters in “The Magdalene Sisters” seem directly inspired by those of the women in “Sex in a Cold Climate,”with the notable exception that the women in the documentary are about a generation older than those in Mullan’s film.

That “The Magdalene Sisters” starts in 1964 cannot have been without significance. At a time when women were just beginning to experience previously unknown sexual freedom, time stood still for the alleged “fallen women” of the Magdalene asylums. The arrival of automatic dryers in the laundry is the only sign of progress or change that these women see. But Mullan doesn’t address that irony directly, nor does he give us any indication of how or why Ireland’s moral authority came to rest with the church rather than the government, or how the patriarchy which punished these women has been allowed to flourish for so long. And maybe that’s too much to ask of one film. But “Sex in a Cold Climate” had already told us what happened in those asylums for all those years. It would have been even more enlightening if “The Magdalene Sisters” had told us how it happened. And why.

5 Comments so far
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Patty, I have not seen TMS. But I've heard PLENTY. I never went because I thought that I would become so enraged in the cinema that the place would spontaneously combust through the sheer force of my will. Certainly the males in authority took advantage of their positions in every way possible. Absolutely chilling. That is what happens. But this is what I've been saying for years. It's my own personal experience and it mirrors lots of other womens' as well. Females are often hateful and damaging to each other. Much more so than men. Except, of course, for the more extreme cases. When jealousy rears its ugly head, all logic flies out the window. It's also EXTREMELY unsurprising to me that a gorgeous young woman who enjoyed innocent flirtations and essentially liked men would be persecuted for precisely those reasons. Why, she actually TALKED to a boy today. She is luring lustful young men into temptation. How dare she!!! We must beat that nasty little sinner into submission and cure her of her evil ways. That Jezabel…The whole thing sickens me. I'd believe it was that bad. But the world never really changes. Extraordinarily eloquent and well written review as always, Pat. Seriously. Do you know why this happened? It's because those nuns were old and ugly. The ones that weren't needed desperately to get laid. I guess they couldn't face the fact that someone else out there might actually be enjoying themselves. Couldn't have that. Now could we…?

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Oh, more quick thing that I neglected to say…Patty, if all women were like you, then the world would be a much better place.None of that nonsense would have gotten off the ground. As in ever…

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda-Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your comments – been a bit of a crazy week here.Anyway, thanks for the kind words.I suspect that if you and I had ever ended up in one of these hell holes,we'd be the first girls to get our heads shaved by the sisters!! And then we'd find a way to escape for good.The partriarchal nature of the Church is certainly one of the causes,but so too is the fact that when women are deprived of any real power in such a society, they turn on each other. (as you allude to in your comments.) I think that's what was up with the nuns in this story. Probably the only way for a woman to have any personal power in that time and place was to become a nun – and then punish the "lesser" females who dared to act on their own sexual desires.That's my theory,anyway.Still it makes for a pretty excruciating film. Halfway through,I was starting to regret that I'd volunteered to review this one. It really is painful, almost suffocating, to watch.

Comment by Pat

This is indeed an uneven film Pat, and you impressively discuss both its shortcomings (and strenghths). It's a harrowing experience, and although I did buy the DVD as an incurable OCD-inflicted "collector" I still only watched it once in the theatre. The film certainly succeeds in making a damning evaluation of the theological hierarchy, and in so doing boils one anger, even for those like myself, who were raised as Catholic. Lucille and I are raising all our kids as Catholics, and although we all rarely attend mass, all are receiving the sacraments. Just weeks ago one daughter received Holy Communion and the other Confirmation within a week. Therefore like you, I am acute on the acknowledgement of church abuse. I agree with you that Mullin did tap the sensationalistic essence of the story, and seemed to balk on probing deeper, and therein lies the problem. This is a thought-provoking, fecund piece that doesn't just embrace something for its importance, but rather asks for more than tinsel dressing. I somehow was thinking that Ric's site was displaying only each writer's top film of its year, and obviously Pat that is not the case here. If I may ask, which film of 2002 was your own favorite?

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam -I was a latecomer to Ric's series,so if it was meant to feature each writer's favorite film of they year, I obviously missed the boat! I chose "The Magdalene Sisters" from a list of films that Ric published as looking for reviewers. And I was surprised to find how much less I respected it the second time around. I don't think I every likediit – how can you like a film this upsetting?You and I of the same generation,and probably have some similar experiences of Catholic upbringing,so naturally we'd have some of the same reactions to this film. Even though I left the Church to join a liberal Protestant denomination in 2003, some part of me will always be a Catholic.

Comment by Pat

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