"The Magdalene Sisters"
Director: Peter Mullan
Patricia Ducey

The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Scottish filmmaker Peter Mullan, tells the story of four young Irish women -- composites of many actual women -- who were incarcerated in Ireland’s now infamous Magdalene Laundries in the late 1960s. The laundries were ostensibly reformatories for “fallen” women (hence the name Magdalene); but they were in fact prisons and their unfortunate inmates, slave labor.

Teenage Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is sent to the laundries for flirting with boys while standing outside her orphanage home, Rose (Dorothy Duffy) for having a baby out of wedlock, and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) for being raped by her cousin. Headmistress Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), runs the laundry with a cruelty born of the twisted sexual repression and unfettered power of the Church. The portrait of President Kennedy on her desk is a simple and shocking reminder that these atrocities took place decades, not centuries, ago.

The newcomer actors shine in what unfortunately ends up a Women in Prison picture; yet Noone as the tough girl, Duffy as the kindly Rose, and Duff as the group’s leader, enrich the story with their graceful and deeply affecting acting. The initial vignettes that portray the “sins” of the girls that lead to their confinement are compelling as well, but the rest of the plot is mostly one act of sadism by the nuns or desperate escape attempt by the inmates after the other.
Mullan has answered this criticism by saying that he avoided the three-act structure here in order to avoid raising one girl’s story above the other.

But the structure of the film is not especially my cavil. As brutal as these individual oppressors are, they were not an anomaly. The laundries were but one aspect of a systematic structure of repression that penetrated every corner of Irish society. When Ireland was separated into two states in 1922, the newly independent South adopted a “de-anglicization” program along the lines prescribed by the revivalist Gaelic Irish movement of the time. In alliance with the Catholic Church, the Republic adopted the rhetoric of the cultural nationalists and built an insular society as xenophobic and anti-modern as Franco’s Spain during the same time period. This formula for control is remarkable not in its originality, sadly, but in its similarity to every unholy alliance between a fascistic state and religion today.

Isolated by law and by geography, Irish society by 1960 had conflated into a zeitgeist of hysterical religiosity and “pure” Irish-ness and is still recovering today. It is therefore not surprising, for instance, that the families of the women in the film instigated their confinement. This context is missing from the film almost entirely and would have raised Magdalene to the level of the great social justice films of Mullan’s mentor, Ken Loach.

The Church has condemned the movie as hyperbole, but Irish newspapers investigated and confirmed Magdalene’s allegations, and the film did very well there. Whatever its shortcomings as a film, The Magdalene Sisters succeeds as an object lesson of the tragic consequences to human dignity and freedom that result from state sponsored religion, a lesson that bears oft repeating. Above all, Magdalene, as an artifact of recovered history, gives voice to the spirit of those thousands of Irish women who suffered behind the wall of silence and stone for too long.

-- Patricia Ducey

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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