The Magdalene Sisters is a film that should and very likely will infuriate its audiences. Some will be outraged at what they may perceive as an attack on Catholic Church authority. Others will be aghast that the abuses such as those depicted in the movie could have been allowed to be perpetuated.
The film follows three young girls who are sent to Magdalene Laundries, a Catholic Church run home for “wayward girls”. Although no legal authority has been invested in the home, being committed there, usually by family members, usually translates to a life sentence with no hope of parole. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) has been sent to the Sisters after being raped by a relative at a family wedding. (We are never told what, if any, punishment the rapist received.) Rose (Dorothy Duff) is sent after she has a child out of wedlock rather than an abortion. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) “crime” was flirting with the boys who passed by her orphanage.
At the laundry, the girls are forced to work long hours and endure harsh punishments for the mildest of rule infractions. Rather than allow their spirits to be broken, the girls fight back in what ways they can. When they discover that a priest has taken sexual advantage of the mentally handicapped Crispina (Eileen Walsh) the girls extract what revenge they can. But as they look at the women who have grown old working in the laundry, they realize that their only hope of seeing the outside world again is escape.
Tragically, The Magdalene Sisters is not a flight of fantasy or a cautionary tale in the spirit of 1990‘s The Handmaid’s Tale. Writer/director Peter Mullan has based his screenplay on actually accounts from women who were incarcerated at the various Magdalene Laundries throughout Ireland. The Laundries flourished for into the 1970s with the final one closing as recently as 1996. An estimated 30,000 women were held in their walls over their 150 years of existence.
Of course the tragic irony of the film is that many of these characters cling to the rules of their faith so much that they forget the basic precept of “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” There is much hypocrisy at work here. The girls eat very simple meals while the nuns have finer fare. The girls are often subjected to dehumanizing punishments but are contrarily told that men are sinners and that they are being removed from that temptation.
In addition to the strong story, there are equally strong performances from a cast of virtual unknowns. Eileen Walsh brings amazing depth to her heartbreaking portrayal of the mentally slow Crispina, while Geraldine McEwan exudes sadistic cruelty as the head nun.