Here are the crimes for which the three teenage girls at the center of The Magdalene Sisters are committed to indefinite sentences of hard labor: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her own cousin at a family wedding. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gives birth out of wedlock to a baby her parents quickly force her to sign away to an orphanage. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) flirts with some boys on the playground. All three are shipped off to a convent in the green rolling hills outside Dublin. The rambling place is run as a sort of asylum for wayward young women by the craggy-faced Sisters of Mercy, who might as well be wearing jackboots under their long black robes. The girls sleep in military-style barracks tucked up under the eaves and spend their days following a strict schedule that’s reminiscent of basic training: “Breakfast at 6. Prayers at 6:30. Start work at 7.”
The idea, of course, is that they will find redemption in the eyes of God through hard work, just as Mary Magdalene, for whom the order is named, saved her own soul. The young women scrub clothes for a local laundry company by hand, earning money that keeps them in gruel and the nuns in bacon and eggs. They’re kept in line with a combination of beatings, good old-fashioned Catholic guilt, and wild threats, told that anyone who acts out too boldly will “end up in Africa, working with the lepers”where “anything that sticks out, falls off.” All of this is enforced from the top by Sister Bridget, played with dictatorial glee by 71-year-old English actress Geraldine McEwan.
The movie is set in the ’60s, and writer-director Peter Mullan based it on a true storybut definitely not in the way that, say, Remember the Titans or Catch Me If You Can were based on true stories. There’s none of the Hollywood uplift you get in movies like that, no light touch helping to sell big themes. This is more a story about what happens to your will when you’re confined and brutalized, physically and psychologically, and what kind of silent cooperation from the society outside the gates is required to keep you there, marked only by a vaguely defined, vaguely sexual shame. The film also has a journalistic grit, and it’s satisfying in the way that all good muckraking is. (A scandal exposed the Magdalene workhouses to public scrutiny in the ’70s, but the last one didn’t close until 1996.)
Many of the twists and turns of the plot will be familiar to anybody who’s seen a prison drama. All the staples of the genre can be found in Mullan’s script: Clandestine forms of communication are established. Dark-of-night escapes end in bloody failure. Rebellions pop up and are brutally quashed. Mullan, an actor-turned-director best known for roles in Trainspotting and My Name Is Joe, even shows up briefly as a father who drags his daughter back to the convent after she tries to escape and gives her a nasty, drunken beating in front of the other girls. The key in all activities is to blend in, not to be noticed, and certainly not to get a reputation as a young lady with ideas. Clad in identical brown dresses for work and identical flannel nightgowns for sleep, the women eventually learn that what’s true for lepers is true for them, toowith a twist: Anything that sticks out will be beaten down.
The Magdalene Sisters is superbly made, though it’s never able to regain the quickening appeal of its opening scene. That sequence shows the undoing of Margaret, the one who’s dragged upstairs and raped by her cousin. Mullan runs the whole scene beneath loud
wedding-party music, so that when Margaret comes back down to the reception and tells another young woman what’s happened, we don’t hear any of the dialogue. We just watch as the music gets more and more manic, one person whispering to another in a twisted version of Telephone, until finally a priest gets word of the incident. Early the next morning, she’s stuffed into a car and packed off to the convent.
Mullan, not surprisingly, is most impressive as a director of actors, and he gets tough and memorable results from a whole group of young performersespecially Noone as the flirty and tough-as-nails Bernadette, who becomes the movie’s Norma Rae. The movie has two or three moments that don’t quite workwhen the actors show their youth too much, or when plausibility breaks downbut in the end they serve mostly as a reminder of how consistent the rest of the film manages to be.
What’s most consistent of all is the toneblack, bleak, and unrelenting. Over the course of two hours, there are only the briefest flashes of relief: an afternoon of sack races out on the lawn, a distraction that gives one of the girls time to think about escaping through a back gate, and a Christmas Day that delivers an orange on every bed and a screening of Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s. But after those moments melt away, the girls slip back into despair as every chance of reform, rescue, or salvation is lost. One goes slowly insane, and an update at the end of the film includes images of her inside an asylum (as well as the news that the woman on whom the character was based died of anorexia in 1974). We see her in a cell, fingering her gums and staring blankly into space. The only thing we can hope is that she’s too far gone to remember the details of the experience we’ve just watched her suffer through.CP