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:: The Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters was inspired by the British Channel 4 documentary ‘Sex in a Cold Climate’. Deeply moved by the documentary, writer/director Peter Mullan was equally disgusted by the Vatican’s denial of the concentration camp conditions women were subjected to. We learn from the film that up to 30,000 women lived and died in these homes for wayward girls. Even more shocking is the fact that girls could be institutionalised for being pregnant out of wedlock, having impure thoughts or for being raped. Enter our three heroines: Margaret, who is raped by her cousin, Rose, who is pregnant out of wedlock, and Bernadette, who flirts with boys at school.

It has to be said that this is potentially very heavy material. One of the most impressive things about The Magdalene Sisters, is the way that Mullan has carefully crafted the light and shade of the story. Rather than making a polemic that rails against Catholicism and the oppression of women, he has created a cast of complex characters who are trying to make sense of their world, nuns and girls alike. The youthful exuberance and humour of Bernadette’s flirtations balance the horror of Margaret’s rape. The girls all end up in the same nightmare but Mullan is careful to show you the humour and humanity in this otherwise tragic tale.

The cast is superb. Newcomer Nora-Jane Noone is reminiscent of a young Elizabeth Taylor and plays the passionate Bernadette with flair and intensity. Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret) and Dorothy Duffy (Rose) are equally remarkable; Duffy vacillates between outrage and despair and resolves those emotions in to pure courage. Duffy cast the most tragic figure of the three, we feel she is beaten before she begins and yet Duffy fleshes her softness out with a grim determination to survive and do what’s right. All the girls are victims but played as heroes; it is this approach that makes a potentially depressing story so utterly gripping.

The supporting cast is an important part of the film’s success. Mullan has written excellent supporting roles, for example the nun’s are real people who at the end of the day, believe that what they are doing is right. Similarly Rose’s Father (played by Mullan) is clearly as devastated by the loss of his daughter, as he is brutally punitive. The notable performances are from Geraldine McEwan as Sister Bridget and Eileen Walsh as Crispina. McEwan brings out all the contradictions in Sister Bridget, we sense that she cares for the girls and yet she punishes them sadistically. Walsh’s Crispina is a sacrificial lamb but despite appearances, nobody’s fool. Crispina’s is the worst story and Walsh marks her decline with equal measures of delight and desperation.

The Magdalene Sisters is an emotional and entirely satisfying cinema experience. Mullan’s direction is elegant and unpretentious; he has crafted a wonderful and important story. The story proves that often it is the true ones that are the most powerful. It came about from a documentary was shown on RTE in Ireland in 1993. They put an announcement of a helpline at the end, which was quite a novel thing at the time, and of course they had to keep the line open for four days because of all the people who rang in. That took RTE aback, and of course the papers picked up on it. So the Vatican sent over an envoy that met something like 6 or 700 of the 3000 that phoned in. He reported back to the Pope that he’d never come across a case of mass hysteria quite like it. Such was the impact of this ‘very admirable but misinformed documentary’; such was its impact that people had created false memories of it. Imagine! This is 1993, and this guy declares 700 people are practically certifiable. They’re all nuts, let’s not listen to a word of it. That’s only ten years ago, so what we’re finding out now must mean it’s rotten down to the foundation. I think now the anger in equal measure is as much about the fact that these people thought they would simply get away with it.

Screening at Cinema Nova, Cinema Europa, Rivoli Cinemas, KinoDendy Cinemas, and Brighton Bay Cinemas.