The Magdalene Sisters, directed by Peter Mullan (U.K.: Bórd Scannán na hE´ireann, 2002).
The Magdalene Sisters follows the lives of four young Irish women: Rose (Dorothy Duffy) who, to her mother’s mortification, has just given birth to an illegitimate child; Margaret (AnneMarie Duff), who is a rape victim; devout and slowwitted Crispina (Eileen Walsh); and Berna dette (Nora-Jane Noone), who “provokes temptation” in local boys. They all end up at a religious convent—one of Dublin’s socalled Magdalene Asylums—in 1964.
The asylum is run by the Catholic Church, and the women housed there are supposed to be sheltered; instead they are exploited. They spend their days in prisonlike incarceration, toiling long hours doing laundry in enforced silence. The asylums keep the profits from the laundry services, tucking away the money earned by the pain and sweat of their inmates. Imprisoned for years—even decades—the women’s best years follow the dirt, sweat, and lye down the drains.
For the nuns who run the asylum, the work is penance, necessary suffering to atone for the wayward women’s grievous sins. Rose, Margaret, and the rest are routinely reminded that they are vile, corrupt, and worthless. Their only ticket to heaven is through the dank and hellish laundry rooms. Still, not all the women are cowed by the harsh conditions and cruelty: “All the mortal sins in the world wouldn’t justify this place,” Bernadette says.
The women are systematically stripped of their dignity, individuality, sense of worth, and even identity. It’s not enough that they are cast away by their families; they are subjected to cruelty and sexual humiliation.
The Magdalene Sisters is sprinkled with moving scenes testifying to the determination and inner fiber of the young women. In the opening scene, Margaret is raped by her cousin during a wedding party. They both return to the party, she in tears and he back to his bottle. She tells a friend, who tells another. Over the loud music, and amid the partiers and dancers, whispers go from ear to ear among family members. Director Mullan doesn’t let us hear what they say; the accusatory and disdainful glances at Margaret tell us all we need to know. Before our eyes, she is heartbreakingly ostracized and revictimized by the shame that should not be hers to bear. All the actresses are firstrate and give compelling and moving performances.
In the Republic of Ireland in the 1960s, the separation of church and state was paper-thin, and few Irish were interested in the plight of morally corrupt and socially outcast “whores.” The Church’s authority, often exercised with the cruel blessing of the women’s parents, was enough to keep them working in the asylums indefinitely. The victims’ deep Catholicism also kept them in line; they had been raised to see the priests and nuns as privy to higher authorities and powers than they could ever hope to petition. Who were they—reminded daily how corrupt and evil they were—to challenge these men and women of God?
The Magdalene Sisters is all the more powerful because it is based on many true stories: the asylums were home and prison to tens of thousands of women for decades. The last Magdalene Asylum finally shut its doors in 1996. The film has caused quite a stir in Ireland, as much for its indictment of the church as for the audacity of writer and director Mullan in exposing the Catholic Church’s dirty laundry. The Vatican has denounced the film as a “rancorous provocation”—demonstrating that it is more interested in damage control than addressing the profound failures of its moral leadership. At a time when the Church’s systematic and sustained efforts to protect child molesters in its ranks has become a matter of public record, its cowardice in facing its past is shameful.
The story is finally getting some publicity, not only from this film but also in a 60 Minutes segment that has aired several times. Director Peter Mullan deserves credit for giving voice to countless women who were abused by religious zealotry, social hypocrisy, and moral crusaders. Ireland remains deeply Catholic, of course, and even today it takes courage to make an important film such as this one.
Benjamin Radford is a part-time film critic, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us (Prometheus Books).