January 6, 2004 -- “The Magdalene Sisters” is a depressing, horrifying movie about gulag-like conditions that existed in many “Magdalene Laundries” (Magdalene Sisters Asylums for wayward girls) in Ireland for some 150 years. These facilities, run by the Catholic Church, used the slave labor of women abandoned by their families to wash laundry for the profit of the church. Some women spent most of their lives in these prison-like facilities. The movie is a powerful drama, but is it a true story? Well, it is and it isn't. More on that later.
The movie, directed by Peter Mullan, follows four young women held prisoner in one of these asylums. One, Crispina, (powerfully portrayed by Eileen Walsh), is dim-witted. She is forced to have sex with a priest and finally is carted off to a mental institution when she reveals the truth about the priest, that he is not “a man of God.” She also tries to commit suicide. Walsh's portrayal of this weak, tortured soul is a tour-de-force. Another main character, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), is raped by her cousin at a wedding. Nothing, apparently, is done to the cousin, while Margaret is shipped off the the Magdalene laundry without explanation. The pretty Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is shipped off to the same facility from an orphanage simply because she likes to flirt with boys. Bernadette attempts to escape and is severely punished. Margaret is severely beaten for trying to tell Crispina's sister that Crispina has been sent away to an insane asylum. The women are all held in stark living conditions, are not allowed to speak, are worked very hard and are demeaned, brutalized and ridiculed. In one scene, they are made to stand naked while a nun makes fun of their breasts and pubic hair (in a scene featuring full frontal nudity). Their lives, in short, are a living hell. The nuns and priests in the film are painted with a broad brush. Most of them are portrayed as pure evil. One concept the film advances concerns the abuses that arise when any theocracy gets too much secular power. This is a cautionary tale against the kind of theocracy the religious right in the United States would like to establish.
At the end of the film, there is a brief bit of text explaining what happened to each of the film's main characters, as if they were real people and this film was their real story. The trouble is, the characters are fictional. The characters are based on the experiences of real people, but they are composites. The story of each character in the film does not represent the true story of a real, corresponding person. Near the end of the credits of the film, there is a disclaimer that the characters in the film are “entirely fictional” (or at least that's what it appears to say. I could not read it very well because I viewed this film on a VHS screener, rather than a DVD with the resolution needed to adequately display such small type). The disclaimer means that the film is not technically dishonest, but I certainly felt mislead by it. Further complicating matters is that one caption at the end of the film reveals that Crispina's “real name” is Harriet, thus implying that the character Crispina represented a real person named Harriet to whom at least some of these experiences really happened. The same was not said for the other three characters, but it seemed to be implied.
The real facts of the Magdalene laundries are these: They did exist. Girls were abandoned by their families and many women did die there. Some 30,000 women really were treated as slave labor. The untold story of the Magdalenes began to be revealed several years ago when church property was sold in Dublin. On that property were the remains of 133 women from Magdalene laundries illegally buried there in unmarked graves. There is a real story of one woman, Mary Norris, who, like a character in the movie, was released by her brother from a Magdalene laundry after three years of hard labor. According to CBS news, Norris said, “When I left, they gave my brother an envelope with three 10-shilling notes in it. And my brother asked the nun what it was for, and she said, 'That's the payment for working.' ... And he just tore it up and threw it back at her.” At that time, 30 shillings was worth about $3.20, according to CBS news. The story of Mary Norris' release is very powerful, in fact, more powerful than the way a similar story is told in the movie. This begs the question, why not use the real story? Why not base each character on a real person instead of composites? It would have been a lot more work for the filmmakers to secure the rights to these accounts, but it would have given the film more validity and more impact. In the movie, it appeared that the families of the girls did not care about them. In real life, the names of the girls were changed by the church (some were assigned numbers, as in Nazi concentration camps) and it was often very difficult for families to find them once they had been moved. That, to me, is even worse than what was depicted in the film. Again, why not use the true story? If you can't base the characters on real people, at least tell the audience they are composites. For more on the Magdalene laundries, see the Magdalene Sisters links below. Note: there are also links here to sites concerning Holy Cross Retreat, a Magdalene laundry in Australia. There is also a link to the CBS story quoted above.
From a cinematic standpoint, this is a very good film. The first few minutes of the film are told without dialogue. It is pure cinema, much like a silent movie. The acting is very good by all the principle actors, although there is no depth to any but the four main characters, and little background as well. The film has good production values, with convincing sets, costumes and good location photography. The direction by Peter Mullan is solid. This is a deeply disturbing, and very depressing, film with shocking scenes of physical and psychological abuse. The film does more than its share to uncover the horrors which took place in the Magdalene laundries of Ireland. The misleading nature of the film's depictions of its main characters, however, are also deeply troubling. This film is not mere anti-Catholic propaganda, but the misleading, manipulative and morally simplistic way it portrays the story gives an excuse for some of the faithful to think it really is just propaganda. This one-sided, less-than-honest approach calls into question the very truth the film is trying to expose. In sum, the film is very good cinematically and it uncovers terrible crimes against women, but journalistically, it shoots itself in the foot. This film rates a B.
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