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The Magdalene Sisters
2003 - R - 119 Mins.
Director: Peter Mullan
Producer: Frances Higson
Written By: Peter Mullan
Starring: Geraldine McEwan, Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, Nora-Jane Noone
Review by: David Trier
Tired of hearing how the Catholic Church turns a blind eye to thousands upon thousands of sexual abuses by its priests against young boys? Young girls feeling neglected in the Catholic Church abuse arena? Fear no more…

The Magdalene Sisters is inspired by the true story of several girls forced into slave labor in an Irish laundromat scheme run by the Catholic Church in the 1960’s (which actually lasted for three more decades). We first meet Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who after getting raped by her cousin at a wedding is immediately mistrusted and sent to the Magdalene asylum. Later we meet Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a virgin orphan accused of being a temptress when the nuns notice how boys take a liking to her. And then there’s Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and Crispina (Eileen Walsh) who each had their “illegitimate” children torn from them, the latter not helped by a slight mental handicap, already imprisoned there for two years. Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is the sultan of the evil machine, in which she oversees the slave labor and psychological and physical abuse of the girls. Some will find a way to break out of this horror – others will just break.

Writer/director Peter Mullan (also a fine actor with a small supporting role) is not timid in his portrayal of the very real cruelty committed here. Maybe I wasn’t clear before. The Catholic Church was endorsing institutions in Ireland that were using young girls for slave labor. So cruelty is a pretty tame word. Now, there are times where Mullan seems to overindulge in the emotional horrors, inadvertently detracting from their strength. A few scenes could be left much earlier than they are and end up being a bit trite as a result. But as a whole, this is a very evenly paced and vividly executed film. From the first shot, a priest passionately drumming and singing an Irish tune at a wedding, we are transported to a readily identifiable time and place and are ready for any story to hit us.

Little of this guttural rage the film induces would be possible without Geraldine McEwan’s incarnation of evil that is Sister Bridget. Freddy may be a match for Jason, but he’s no match for this monstrosity. Anne-Marie Duff is subtle and convincing as Margaret. Nora-Jane Noone is charming as Bernadette and has a face I would imagine the Church really would accuse of being a temptress. Dorothy Duffy seems to hold back a little, but ultimately delivers well. The true star of the film is Eileen Walsh, whose Crispina character is both repulsive and sympathetic.

Perhaps being held back by the non-fiction elements of the story, it would have been nice to see this group of women form a stronger bond amongst each other. The fact that they never really become true friends makes the story a bit disjointed, as if it were a handful of stories thrown together under one roof. One also wishes for more revenge against not only the evil nuns, but the maniacal self-important parents who would sentence their own children to hell.

However, it is undeniable that this is a fine film. You’ll be biting your knuckles with indignation. We’re all accustomed to thumbing our noses at Wahabist fundamentalist Islam – this is Wahabist Catholicism and it is incredibly disturbing.
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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