...a powerful, dramatic, moving, dark, and depressing experience.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Established in the eighteenth century and continuing until near the end of the twentieth century, Ireland's Magdalene Asylums were intended by the Catholic Church as havens of refuge for unwed mothers, fallen women, and females suspected of having had sexual relations; they were places where such women could redeem themselves in the eyes of God. But these institutions also took in women whose families sent them there for no other reason than they couldn't afford to feed them, and once admitted within their walls, few were ever allowed to leave. It is estimated that in the course of a century and a half some 30,000 women were detained within the Magdalene walls, some of the women living out their entire lives in forced servitude to the Church.

The Catholic Church believed it was doing the women a favor, providing them a blessing, by taking them in, caring for them, and helping them absolve themselves of their sins. Supposedly for their own good, unwed mothers were often separated forever from their children, and all the women were kept busy producing money for the Church by doing laundry. Thus, the institutions were also referred to as the Magdalene Laundries. The women confined there, young and old, were called "penitents" and were in actuality being punished for their sexual indiscretions, real or imagined. Most penitents never left the Laundries, but those who were discharged or ran away were said to be forever scarred by their ordeal.

How could such medieval institutions exist throughout these enlightened times, the last Magdalene Asylum finally closing in 1996? How could the Irish government allow such abuse of human rights and human dignity? It would appear to be one more stain on the dirty linen of the Catholic Church, which has come into more than its share of trouble lately. The Church, you see, has always been a dominant force in Irish social and political life, and it has wielded an immense power over every aspect of Irish daily life, for good and for bad. If the events of the 2002 movie "The Magdalene Sisters" are to be taken as the truth they are purported to be, the verdict about the places weighs heavily toward the negative end of the scale.

Written and directed by Peter Mullen ("Orphans"), the movie is set in County Dublin in 1964 and follows the tribulations of three young women who were admitted to the Magdalene Asylum at about the same time. It is not a pretty prospect.

The first young woman we meet is Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who was raped by her cousin during a wedding reception. When she told a friend, the friend told her parents, and she was immediately outcast and sent to the nearest Magdalene Asylum. Apparently, nothing was done about the boy who raped her.

The second young woman is Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan who was sent away to the Magdalene Asylum because she was pretty and flirtatious, nothing more. It was thought her upbringing by the nuns at the asylum would be more beneficial to her moral upbringing than staying at the orphanage.

The third young woman is Rose, known as Patricia (Dorothy Duffy), who has had a baby out of wedlock and thereby disgraced her family. Her parents disown her, the baby is put up for adoption, and she is sent her to the Magdalenes.

Brooding over the asylum is the head mistress, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, of TV's "Mulberry"), an ironhanded, iron-headed tyrant. Not only does she allow no back talk, she allows no talking of any kind among the women in her charge. They are not even supposed to talk to one another for the ten or twelve hours a day they work, nor during meals, nor at night. Do your job, eat, go to bed. That was the routine, until death. That and to be humiliated and assailed by the nuns. To the outside world, the inmates of the Magdalene Laundries were no more than "hookers and whores." It's no wonder the three young women of the story plot to escape.

"The Magdalene Sisters" is a true horror story if all of it is to be believed, for the incidents described in the narrative were going on until quite recently; and we can readily accept that such terrifying sexual oppression and bigotry continue to go on today, not only in Ireland but in many other countries. It gives one pause to think and despair.

Which brings up a final point: In the Church's defense, the film seems more than a bit one-sided. It portrays all of the nuns at the Magdalene Asylums as uncaring, unfeeling, brutal, or sadistic; all Irish men as moronic sexists; all Irish women as sexually repressed; and all of the Republic of Ireland subordinate to the absolute and medieval rule of the Catholic Church (some 90% of its population is Catholic). The movie may be laying on its claims rather strongly. But the film leaves us no doubt that the goings on described in the story did happen, and more than once.

In all, the movie is a powerful, dramatic, moving, dark, and depressing experience. It is appropriately rated R for nudity, cruelty, violence, profanity, and sexual references.

The best part of the video is its impression of natural color tones. People and objects look like real people and objects. The rest of the video in this 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic transfer, however, is fairly ordinary. There is a veil of soft grain that begins in the opening scenes and continues intermittently throughout the film, a gritty quality I wasn't sure was intended or not. I'm thinking the former, because it does impart a sense of age to a story that is supposed to be happening over four decades ago. Image delineation is slightly blurred as well, and darker areas of the screen are a touch murky, adding to the feeling of gloom and doom that surrounds the whole narrative.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does a fine job conveying impact and bass, a good left-to-right stereo spread, and a realistic midrange for speech. But there's not much in the way of surround sound involved, nor, I suppose, any need for any. A little rain in the rear channels, some occasional bird noises, and some musical ambiance is about all we hear. Still, in a film like this, it's the dialogue that counts, and voices are well rendered.

There is only one bonus item on the disc, but it's worth all the director's commentaries, photo galleries, and deleted scenes you can shake a keep case at. It's the original, 1998, fifty-minute documentary "Sex In A Cold Climate," that exposed the cruelties of the Magdalene Laundries to the world and inspired the feature film "The Magdalene Sisters." I found the documentary as important and moving as the motion picture itself. Beyond the documentary, there are only twenty scene selections; some Sneak Peaks at other Miramax releases; English and French spoken languages; and English and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"The Magdalene Sisters" is not a film meant to entertain in the conventional sense, and many viewers will find it long and tedious once it has made its point. But the film carries a strong message about the need for love and tolerance within the world community and sounds a vigorous wake-up call to those who would turn a blind eye to the evils around them. Like "Rabbit-Proof Fence" the same year, "The Magdalene Sisters" is a film designed to expose and educate; and although it may do so somewhat heavy-handedly and perhaps too one-sidedly, it nonetheless articulates its objectives quite effectively.


Film Value