Review: The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Directed by: Peter Mullan | 119 minutes | drama | Actors: Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Frances Healy, Eithne McGuinness, Phyllis MacMahon, Rebecca Walsh, Geraldine McEwan, Eamonn Owens, Chris Simpson, Sean Colgan, Daniel Costello Kate Christie, Alison Goldie, Jemma Heath, Anita Hyslop, Marianne McGill, Leonna McGilligan, Claire McKenzie, Claire Murray, Lynsey Robson, Mariann Taylor, Julie Austin, Deirdre Davis, Ian Hanmore, Pol McAdam, Sean McDonagh, Sean Mackin, David Muldrew, Ciaran Owens, Kevin Shields, Ashley Conroy, Pauline Goldsmith, Leanne Henderson, Stephen Mallon, Jim Murray, Christopher Sheridan, Maureen Allan, Laurie Ventry, Jim Walsh, Fran Brennan, Gemma Burns, Daniel Emerson, Tracy Kearney, Stephen McCole, Gareth Milne, Peter Mullan, Julie Wilson Nimmo, Nick Powell, Allan Sharpe, Callum Smith, Flynn Turner, McCauley Smith

‘The Magdalene Sisters’ tells the truth-based story of three girls who, in 1964, are expelled from the strict Catholic Irish community for various reasons. Margaret, Rose and Bernadette have to pay for their sins – rape, an illegitimate child, a little flirting – and are unceremoniously delivered to a convent by parents or orphanage. Under an iron prison regime, they have to do the laundry day in and day out, an activity with which the monastery earns a little extra. In this place of physical and mental exhaustion, of humiliation and despair, where even a name is not a possession of its own – We already have a Rose, from now on your name is Patricia – the overriding thought becomes how to escape. This is not easy, because it is not only the fence that forms a barrier to return to normal life.

The film has a chilling opening scene. When the news of Margaret’s rape gets out during the party, it spreads like wildfire through the family. However, we only see the looks, the conversations are drowned out by the rousing music of the Irish band. Margaret’s fate is in the hands of others, it becomes painfully clear in the first few minutes. Powerlessness and oppression also dominate in the rest of the film, although this diminishes towards the end, and the film threatens to get bogged down in an escape drama.

In the monastery the emphasis is on work and penance, and the endless washing is a nice metaphor for cleansing the soul. The indignities to which the girls are subjected are aptly portrayed in a scene in which they undergo a biggest-breast-thickest-butt contest. However, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ never becomes a tearjerker and plays on feelings of injustice rather than pity. That this is about more than a prison with a fence around it becomes unmistakably clear when Margaret gets the chance to escape. Because why not leave immediately if a back door is accidentally open and you are also offered a lift? Knowing that your own family has brought you to the monastery gives little hope of a safe escape. It must be the thought of this outcast that makes Margaret turn around. Pity or friendship with the other girls is less likely: although they are all in the same boat, there is hardly any contact between the girls. Except for a few moments of compassion, an everyone-for-himself atmosphere predominates: the fear of being punished is great. The viewer should be grateful for this. Had an Annie-esque orphanage atmosphere been created, the already fairly clear line between good and evil might have become a real nuisance.

The acting performances of the young, unknown actresses are very convincing, although none of the characters really get any depth. This superficiality is on the one hand a pity, on the other hand the main characters represent a phenomenon much more than an individual story: such laundries, including the degrading practices, really existed and the last of these was only closed in 1996. Scottish director Peter Mullan proves that this theme is impressive enough for a beautiful, if perhaps a little too long, film.

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