The Magdalene laundries were Catholic sweat shops posing as homes for wayward Irish girls, where residents were expected to renounce their pasts and "clean the soul to remove the stench of the sins you have committed." Humiliated and beaten, half starved, prey to sexual predators and forced to work without pay or hope of release, the girls were less prisoners than slaves. The Magdalene Sisters tells the story of three young women who were incarcerated on the same day in 1964.
Their crimes? One was raped by a cousin and punished when she spoke of it. Another flirted with boys during recess at her orphanage. The third is, like most of the girls here, an unwed mother forced by her family to give up the child and then abandoned to the care of the nuns. Monoliths to the institutional repression of female sexuality (when the inmates are paraded through a nearby town, the locals shun them like lepers), the last of these laundries closed in 1996.
The Magdalene Sisters resembles the 1993 The Boys of St. Vincent, a Canadian film about sexual abuse in a Catholic orphanage. With their sadistic caretakers abusing innocents caught in nightmares of drudgery and degradation, both films have the look and feel of perversely truncated fairy tales – Cinderella with no Prince Charming to end the suffering. Both films also feature villains straight out of the Brothers Grimm. The malevolent Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is introduced counting the week’s take while lecturing on the example of Mary Magdalene. When she’s not beating the girls bloody, she’s hissing at her underlings or pointedly ignoring evidence of sexual exploitation. Her unrelieved spite is complicated only by an oddly touching scene where she watches Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, transported, it seems, by Bergman’s devotion. (And leading the audience to wonder whether the purity of faith she’s responding to is the same thing that drives her to brutalize her charges.)
Drawn from lurid tabloid stories, The Magdalene Sisters could be a disposable Movie of the Week. What makes it far more than that is the care with which writer and director Peter Mullan explores the impact of this world on the inmates. These girls are victims but not simple innocents; treated like animals, they’re reduced to their worst impulses. They’re vindictive, selfish and cowardly, terrified of the consequences of helping one another. An inmate’s unexpected release is met not by the outpouring of joy she thinks is her due but by moping, helpless rage; stunned, she lashes out at her rescuer for taking too long.
Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone, in a startling performance) has the strongest sense of outrage at her captivity, and moves from escape attempts to lashing out at the weaker girls around her. The film pivots on her treatment of Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a disturbed unwed mother so wracked with guilt and self-loathing (her son is being raised by her sister) that it’s unclear whether her childishness and erratic hold on reality is the result of her stay or whether she is, in fact, retarded. Bernadette hates Crispina’s willingness to capitulate, her ability to forgive and her desire to please her captors. When Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to Crispina’s defense, what’s most awful is not the sudden eruption of violence but the dead silence it’s met with by the other inmates. Only at night, when everyone has settled, does Patricia (Dorothy Duffy) dare ask Bernadette why she’d acted so horribly towards the one girl least able to defend herself. "She hadn’t suffered enough," Bernadette answers, echoing the nuns she detests.
Mullan is known primarily as an actor (he won the 1998 Cannes Best Actor prize for his work in My Name is Joe) and his work here with a largely unknown cast is remarkable. He’s assembled a great set of faces, people who, however beautiful, look not like actresses or models but like people. And he uses these faces well. In the opening scene, a wedding band blares so loudly that we cannot hear as the news of a rape spreads through the room. We understand what’s happening only through the exchange of nervous glances. It’s a beautifully conceived scene. The victim is the subject of their discussions but she can’t take part or even hear them. She’s not privy to the decisions being made about her, and she comes to understand how powerless she is as she watches.
Mullan falters occasionally. A climactic moment in the film plays as broad farce before it rights itself (its last minute might be the film’s best scene), and the mismatched tones detract from the power of the scene. He risks caricature with a few of the nuns, particularly Sister Bridget, and none of the male characters are fully realized.
These are small complaints in a film of such power. Though set in the ’60’s, The Magdalene Sisters suggests Dickens as reimagined by Kafka. This is a world where good deeds lead inexorably to catastrophe, where any small triumph has horrific ramifications. It is, finally, a treatise on how badly human beings can behave in the name of service of morality – or how absolute male sovereignty corrupts absolutely.