Before there was a separation of church and state in Ireland, the Irish Catholic Church was the supreme authority, influencing the country’s thoughts and minds from the 1800’s until the mid 90’s. So influential was the church that those who were considered immoral were sent to the Magdalene laundries, nunneries in the form of prisons, where the accused were forced to work tireless hours under poor conditions and without pay for a lifetime of penance. Over a period of 150 years, it is estimated that 30,000 women were mistreated at the Magdalene facilities, many for minor transgressions such as flirtation, appearance, or leaving abusive homes. In an attempt to shed light on the subject, “The Magdalene Sisters” is a disturbingly realistic account of three women and their tortured lives inside the walls of abuse.
The film takes place in 1960’s Ireland. Three girls from different walks of life are abandoned by their families and forced into life long servitude at The Magdalene Laundries, an asylum for unchaste women run by the Sisters of Magdalene order of the Irish Catholic Church. All three girls are sent to the institute for controversial reasons: Margaret is raped by her cousin, Rose has a child out of wedlock, and Bernadette innocently flirts with some boys during recess. By today’s standards, this would seem preposterous, but because of the heavy influence of the Catholic Church at the time, moral code was dictated by the church. Without due process and appeal, the girls were sent against their will to Magdalene to “wash away their sins.”
Upon their arrival, the girls are stripped of their identities and belongings, and forced to work under slave like conditions, hand-washing laundry, scrubbing floors and walls, all the while prohibited from any form of communication outside of prayer. Immediately, the girls’ thoughts focus exclusively on escape, but after many failed attempts, they quickly learn that the only way to truly escape is to be rescued by a loved one – oftentimes, it’s those same loved ones who put them there in the first place. Under the auspices of wicked master nun, Sister Bridget, the girls are severely disciplined, ridiculed, and lectured. Brainwashed and without hope, suicide becomes a way out. Yet for others, even in the most desperate of situations, a glimmer of hope can still be found.
The original Glasgow Magdalene Asylum was built in 1812 as a precautionary measure against health risks associated with prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. Named after the converted prostitute, Mary the Magdalene, the facilities began with voluntary admittance but quickly evolved into something much more inhumane. Perhaps the most shocking of all details is the fact that it wasn’t until 1996 that the last Magdalene laundry was shut down. Since that time, there have been no reparations for those Magdalenes who worked without pay and no formal apology by the Irish Catholic Church, although the Vatican has formally condemned the movie. As new reports are being released describing the grisly details of the laundries, the Sisters of Mercy recently came forth with this acknowledgement: “It was a time in the history of the Catholic Church and religious orders of which we are not proud.” Not much consolation to the thousands of women whose lives they destroyed.
The obvious goal of the film was to showcase the grim aspects of the Magdalene laundries while also hinting at their hypocritical nature. Under harsh conditions, they strip away every ounce of human individuality and turn the girls into brainwashed robots – scrubbing floors, washing clothes, and performing other menial chores in silence. In fact, some of the girls become so induced that when given an opportunity to escape, they decline, fearing the ramifications at heaven’s gates. On the other hand, in a bitter irony, the film also depicts a religious group that does not practice what it preaches. Creating a double standard, the nuns horde money greedily, they chastise and play practical jokes on the girls, and they exact whip like punishment for miniscule offenses. In addition, the priests are involved in a variety of sexual acts and bribes – all masked under the veil of holiness.
Geraldine McEwan is petrifying as Sister Bridget, encompassing everything that is evil. The venomous tone of her voice, the cold blooded stare, and the sadistic sense of humor – all make her one of the most insidious characters to hit the big screen. And Eileen Walsh captures a realistic Crispina, sadly battling both an inherited mental disease and the mental anguish the laundry has imbued upon her.
It is clear that director Peter Mullan has a compelling story to tell, that the Magdalene laundries should be exposed for what they truly are: brutal, inhumane concentration camps. But the laundries withstanding, his story lacks sensibility in a compelling fashion. Though his film is generally unpredictable, he does not fulfill his obligation to the audience as a storyteller. Bernadette, Rose, and Margaret are introduced at the beginning of the film in separate segments to highlight the different reasons girls were sent to the institute. Although they arrive at the laundry at the same time, they have absolutely nothing in common. And throughout the film, they do not form any sort of bond or share any experiences together, although two of them wind up fighting and a different two wind up scheming together by circumstance. Even the main storyline does not really involve them – the sufferings of a fourth girl, Crispina, her mental deficiencies and her struggle to retain communication with her son.
That is not to say that their stories are insignificant; it just means that it doesn’t make for a great movie, particularly when you compare the objective of the film with its delivery. You could have taken any of the 30,000 women and made the same story. Furthermore, the marketing of the film could not have been more misleading. The movie poster highlights the three girls, most prominently Bernadette in a sexually alluring pose, but all of that is just a tease. The film is not about the three girls and the title of the film is not about three sisters from the Magdalene family. It’s a mismatch between heightened expectations and objectives, unnecessary scenes and contradictions.
“The Magdalene Sisters” is an alarming wake up call to cruel and unusual punishment that continues long into modern times. Though it has a tendency to leave characters undeveloped and storylines empty, the overall portrait is significant. Haunting, horrific, and with a small ounce of hope, the film is quick to highlight the demeaning nature of the institution and its lasting effect on generations to come. Says Mary Norris, a former Magdalene: “We were the living dead…Nothing more, nothing less.”
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