The Magdalene Sisters, 119 mins, rated MA, opening in cinemas nationwide on 17 April 2003


Imagine a place where, until the 1970s, women could be imprisoned and enslaved, abused and degraded, forced to do hard manual labour, not allowed any contact with their families – and not even allowed to talk to each other?

What kind of country would allow this?  Which third world dictatorship or hard-line Stalinist regime would tolerate such inhumanity?  It was Ireland.

The Magdalene Sisters tells the story of the Magdalene Asylums, the nuns who ran them and the women and girls who worked in them.  The Magdalene homes were set up in the 19th century as a refuge for prostitutes and “fallen” women.  By the 20th century, they were run by the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy.  Young girls were sent to the Asylums by their families or by orphanages and forced to work in laundries to atone for their “sins.”  Their sins could be anything from having a child out of wedlock to being too pretty or too simple-minded to avoid “moral danger.”

This film is not a documentary – although one inspired it.  Sex in a Cold Climate, made by Steve Humphries for the UK’s Channel 4, recently brought the lives of the Magdalene woman to the public’s notice.  Writer, director and actor Peter Mullen (he was Joe in My Name is Joe, Loach, 1998) saw it and wanted to bring the story to a wider audience.
Mullen has made a powerful dramatic film.  He focuses on the stories of four women.  Margaret has been raped, and makes the mistake of telling her family.  Rose has had an illegitimate child.  Bernadette is an orphan and is a bit too attractive to the local boys.  Simple-minded Crispina is already working in the laundries as the film opens.

It’s a superb cast.  The four girls give sensitive and moving performances.  But Geraldine McEwan, as Sister Bridget, impresses most.  She plays the sadistic and cruel nun with a glimmer of humanity, never descending into caricature.  In one scene the nuns screen a “filum” as a Christmas treat.  It is The Bells of St Mary’s (McCarey, 1945), with Ingrid Bergman as a nun.  We see how Sister Bridget once saw herself, and we see what she has become.  She sees it too.

Both direction and production design are sparse and simple.  The camera takes the viewpoint of a 5th girl, living and working alongside all the other Magdalene girls.

But ethically, Mullen is walking a tightrope.  He has said of his film: “It’s a drama, it’s a fiction, but is inspired by their stories”.  If these are composite characters, then I think he has stepped over the line at the film’s end by allowing some happy endings and inventing a “what happened next” story for each of the four girls.  That’s one of the few false notes in the film.  The other involves a scene of humiliation for a priest, which descends into farce.

The Magdalene Sisters won the Golden Lion at Venice and played to packed houses in Ireland last year.  It has been criticised by the Vatican as untruthful and anti-clerical.  According to newspaper reports, efforts to get proper compensation for these women are being resisted.  The grounds? They (or their parents) consented to their entry into the privately run Magdalene Asylums.

It is estimated that 30,000 woman were detained in the Asylums in Ireland.  There were Magdalene laundries in Britain, too, and the Sisters of Mercy ran laundries in North and South America, France, and Australia.  At the film’s screening I sat in front of a veteran of one such institution in Queensland.  We need to hear their stories.

© Michèle M Asprey 2003

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