Jail-Break Plot Reveals Deep Injustices

By Robert W. Butler
The Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]
September 19, 2003

Many years ago this newspaper's book editor received a review copy of a large leather-bound volume titled A Treasury of Irish Erotic Art. The tome was eagerly opened, only to reveal hundreds of blank pages.

I couldn't help but recall that elaborate publishing joke while watching "The Magdalene Sisters," actor/director Peter Mullens' seething expose of the Irish order of nuns who, for more than a century, sheltered (or perhaps imprisoned) young women ostracized for real or imagined sins of the flesh.

Ireland's longstanding sexual hang-ups are at the heart of this dismaying and angry film, which at first drew the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church. Later the Vatican offered an apology to the women victimized by the system.

Our heroines are three young women who one day in the early '60s are gathered up from their homes by a priest and taken to a Magdalene laundry.

Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) was raped by her cousin. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) had a child out of wedlock. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is a virginal orphan whose offense is to be pretty. Surely, her teachers fear, her looks will lead to debauchery.

The Mother Superior (Geraldine McEwan, as witchy as a villain out of Grimm's) informs them that their families and communities have committed them for their sinful natures. They will work six days a week in the laundry. They're forbidden to talk to one another. The heads of disobeying girls will be shaved. And if they're lucky, when they die they won't go to hell.

In plotting, "The Magdalene Sisters" is a jail-break movie in the vein of "The Great Escape" or "The Shawshank Redemption." First the film establishes the utter humiliation and depravation of the women's circumstances; then thoughts turn to breaking out. The ringleader is Bernadette, who's so desperate for freedom she'll use her body to bribe a delivery man -- captivity has turned her into the adulteress she never was on the outside.

Mullen's film delivers a devastating indictment of sadism in the name of holiness and psychological abuse in the name of piety. He's not always subtle -- he cuts repeatedly to shots of the Mother Superior gleefully counting the money brought in by the inmates' labor -- but no one has accused him of exaggerating the abuses perpetrated by the Magdalene system. In fact, former Madgalenes who've seen the film complain that it doesn't go far enough.

Noone's performance oozes star quality; as Bernadette she embodies the outrage and determination of a spirit that will not be broken. Particularly heartbreaking is Eileen Walsh as a sad, feeble-minded girl who lives mostly for fleeting visits by her young son.

"Magdalene Sisters" isn't what you'd call a fun night at the movies. It's more of a kick in the stomach.

But then sometimes that's just what we need.


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