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By KJ Doughton | August 20, 2003

Forget “Freddy Versus Jason.” For a real horror show, try “The Magdalene Sisters.” Exposing the hair-raising abuse and inhumanity that flourished at Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums in the 1960s, Peter Mullan’s film wants to outrage. Like “Rabbit Proof Fence,” his movie thrusts an observant microscope beneath the carpet of overlooked historical travesties, and finds religious arrogance gone frighteningly round the bend.

Right from the film’s get-go, we’re thrown into the harsh predicaments of three Dublin adolescents. It’s 1964. During a lively wedding shindig full of percussive music and sweaty socializing, young Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a lustful cousin. Meanwhile, Rose (Dorothy Duffy) pleads with her parents to allow one last look at a newborn son being swept away for forced adoption. Then there’s the lovely, orphaned Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), exchanging playful glances with some curious boys from across a courtyard fence.

Perceiving such behaviors as evil betrayals by “fallen” temptresses, their strict Catholic caregivers withdraw support. All three “morally endangered” young women find themselves disowned, denounced, and dumped at a Dublin workhouse run by iron-fisted Sisters of Mercy. Their sentences will be indefinite. The 364-day work schedule will be grueling. Their sanity will be challenged by verbal, physical and sexual abuse on a casual, consistent basis.

Although this ain’t Hogwarts, there’s full-scale witchery being practiced behind Magdalene’s locked doors. The girls are rounded up by a grinning, habit-wearing hag and told to strip, before their breasts and bottoms are ridiculed and mocked. Mother Superior Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) hacks off hair and issues concentration camp cuts to girls who attempt escape. And when a particularly fragile resident publicly protests the relentless sexual favors demanded by a priest, she’s whisked away to a mental hospital.

The film’s three lead actresses forge fine portraits of survivors enduring such spirit-snapping conditions, even as they warp and strain from the cumulative damage of their shared experiences. Noone’s Bernadette is the most fiery and fierce of the three, enraged that her non-crime of attractiveness would result in servitude and humiliation. Meanwhile, she’s not beyond using such beauty to seduce a h***y delivery boy, if such actions are required for freedom.

Margaret is more tentative, unwilling to flee even after stumbling across an overlooked, open door in the estate’s garden. Her actions hint at a life shackled by years of societal submissiveness, rejection, and criticism. Perhaps this is my lot in life, Duff’s tired eyes seem to reflect.

Duffy depicts Rose’s heartbreak and hurt in a worried glance, or an anxious shuffle, as when her character provides another mother with forbidden glimpses of the son she hardly knows. The stars of “The Magdalene Sisters” pump humanity and spirit into a film that could have been unbearable.

Mullan, also an acclaimed thespian and winner of the “Best Actor” award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, strives for a visual style as dire and unpleasant as his subject matter. Drab earth tones choke off any hint of vibrancy or color. Enshrouded in steam, the laundry scenes elicit sensations of sweltering in a sweaty sauna. The nuns’ pale faces are a grotesque collection of folds, slits, and flab. Scrubbed and cadaver-like, such mugs might look at home in a mortician’s embalming room.

A natural reaction to “The Magdalene Sisters” is to ask, “Was it really that bad?” The answer might rest in the Vatican’s quick condemnation of the film as an “angry and rancorous provocation,” and complaints from victims who insist that their experiences were actually much worse than those depicted in Mullan’s film. Meanwhile, it’s startling to consider that Magdalene Asylums were still in operation as recently as 1996.

“The Magdalene Sisters” shows how innocents are victimized when society casts a blind eye towards corrupt institutions, allowing them to fester for decades. It’s a story that needs to be told.

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