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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 31.08%
Average: 1.35%
Pretty Bad: 4.05%
Total Crap: 2.7%

5 reviews, 44 user ratings

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Magdalene Sisters, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Sobering tale of true-life religious sadism."
5 stars

Any movie denounced by the Vatican probably has at least something going for it, but 'The Magdalene Sisters' -- which sheds light on a particularly shameful part of the Catholic Church's history -- has much more to recommend it than simple iconoclasm.

Until fairly recently, the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland ran the Magdalene Asylums, essentially slave-labor prisons for "wayward" girls. To qualify as wayward, you might have a child out of wedlock, or be raped by your cousin and watch your family turn its back on you, or simply be seen talking to boys too much at the orphanage. Those are the "sins" committed by the three lead characters: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), the rape victim; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), the orphan; and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who not only loses her newborn son but, upon arrival at Magdalene, her name. (There's already a Rose there, so she's called by her communion name Patricia.)

Miramax sold this as a triumph-of-the-human-spirit wedge of cheese, but it's a much tougher piece of work than that. Writer/director Peter Mullan, an actor making his second feature (he appears here as the viciously unforgiving father of a girl who has attempted escape), delivers a sobering drama with drab gray colors and symmetrical compositions right out of a Kubrick film; this is The Shawshank Redemption without the inspirational muck that always mars that film for me. There's very little redemption here, only suffering, humiliation, and the desperate need for escape. The prisoners here, after all, have done nothing much wrong except being female. To color even slightly outside the line of good-girlhood is to invite expulsion from the family and a hard cot at the asylum.

The Magdalene girls are required to work long hours every day of the year; the three protagonists toil in the laundry. As punishment for various infractions, the girls are beaten or have their heads shaved or, ultimately, are sent to a real asylum to be doped into submission. Even when the nuns who run the show are trying to have a little fun, there's the spectre of sadism, as in the bizarre scene where a group of the girls stand naked while two nuns bestow "awards" for the biggest breasts, hairiest bush, etc. And you definitely don't want to get on the bad side of Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a corrupt harridan who relishes the torment of her charges and justifies it all as the necessary penance of sinners.

Our heroines are not always heroic. Bernadette, for instance, is a sullen and rather callous girl who's probably had the hardest life of the three. She has a late-inning scene with an elderly asylum co-worker that might force some viewers to break their identification with her; but we see that kindness doesn't come easily to Bernadette, who may see her harshness as a hostile act of mercy. Another inmate, the psychologically fragile Crispina (Eileen Walsh in the film's standout performance), goes steadily downhill after the aforementioned humiliating "awards ceremony." Crispina's arc is the film's most helplessly tragic, sealing the movie with the most haunting image of desolation this year. She, too, is realistically drawn as an unstable and childish girl who isn't equipped to survive the rigors of Magdalene (which include sexual abuse by a priest).

The Magdalene Sisters gives one of its heroines an almost absurdly matter-of-fact release from bondage, as if to say that all it takes is one person on the outside (preferably male) to redeem you and rescue you, and heaven help the rest of the girls who don't have one. The other two make such a loud botch of their eventual escape that, oddly, it feels credible -- more so than a carefully planned Hollywood escape would have been. You get the feeling that Sister Bridget just watches them go, thinking to herself, Good riddance.

The movie ends happily for these three, but the movie is set in the mid-'60s, and a title at the end informs us that the Magdalene Asylums were in business until 1996, detaining more than 30,000 women before their last door was closed. This is a riveting piece of drama about a forgotten slice of history, no matter what the esteemed movie critics at the Vatican say about it.

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originally posted: 01/15/07 14:58:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 CineVegas Film Festival. For more in the 2003 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/20/20 Bents Effective direction and powerful performances 4 stars
4/21/07 action movie fan lacks the punch that boys of st vincent had 2 stars
2/28/07 Beau great performances, but it was too cliched olden times!! not my fortae 2 stars
7/20/06 Sarah Unbelievable movie best I've seen in ages 5 stars
2/21/06 Jen Chilling, disturbing, infuriating. 5 stars
8/21/05 bigbill catholocism, irish-a horrible mixture of ignorance and cruelty 5 stars
6/09/05 Jeanne Horrifying. These women had NO RIGHTS in their own country. All the actors were BRILLIANT. 5 stars
6/07/05 Kyence Simply incredible film. The horror is mesmerizing, forcing one to see it to the bitter end. 5 stars
4/01/05 Elly This movie was BRILLIANT! Leaves you speechless. Takes your breath away. Absolutly amazing. 5 stars
10/16/04 Tam Deeply moving film with sublime performances. You won't stop thinking about it for ages. 5 stars
7/20/04 Taylor Fladgate "Midnight Express", Irish Catholic style. 5 stars
3/15/04 Sarkofuck Great movie 5 stars
3/04/04 Thom Saw months ago...still haunts me 5 stars
10/01/03 Jinnvisible A reminder that cruelty is still at large in small minds ,,, well acted harrowing drama 4 stars
9/16/03 john i liked it 5 stars
9/05/03 mary natale mothers and fathers beating and abandoning their precious daughters in the name of god. 5 stars
9/04/03 limerick Unbelievable acting. May the evil doers(nuns or priests) rot in hell 5 stars
9/03/03 Angie Heart The power of this (true life) heartbreaker was diminished by over-the-top direction. 3 stars
9/01/03 Talisha Hunt Enlightening, and moving film. I thought nors jane noone was captivating as a temptress. 5 stars
8/27/03 Zwee I like this film. 5 stars
8/27/03 Jesse I can't stop thinking about it 5 stars
8/26/03 N. Rosen Timely and extraordinarily thought provoking; fabulous performances 5 stars
8/21/03 S. Scallan A very good, necessary film on a subject long hidden and ignored. 5 stars
8/16/03 Sly Massa Great Film 5 stars
8/14/03 becky the best film i've ever seen in my entire life 5 stars
8/04/03 blinky most brilliant filmny n 5 stars
7/29/03 Edgar nora-jane noone, I loved you!!! 5 stars
7/26/03 raed it is very sexy 2 stars
7/19/03 gringoyo Brave screenplay, editing Nora-Jane Noone is going to go places 4 stars
7/08/03 n great 5 stars
7/02/03 ilicit easyly one of the best moives ive seen this year 5 stars
6/18/03 brad USA GO SEE THIS MOVIE IN AUG 2003 5 stars
6/11/03 Rocky I seen this movie and I hated it! It rips off "the hours"! Blam this piece of shit!! 1 stars
5/18/03 Judith Mac Mullan A tuching movie and proof that the clergy are as rotten & evil as the next person!!! 5 stars
4/30/03 karen boone thought provoking, incredibly hard to understand the extrent of reality 4 stars
4/28/03 Ingo Very gripping movie, but sometimes too foreseeable... 4 stars
4/25/03 ALEX These stories need to be told - so that it never happens again 5 stars
4/22/03 Trish Move over Colin Farrel - Chris Simpson as Brendan in the Magdalene Sisters ouses sex appeal 5 stars
4/22/03 kyree it's touching, and has a very strong story 5 stars
4/19/03 John Bale OUTSTANDING. Finely crafted and acted, with suspense pathos and human spirit. Don't Miss ! 5 stars
4/17/03 mr. Pink Will be seen as one of the best of 2003. Institutionalized religions: AAAAARRRGGGHHHH!!!!!! 5 stars
4/08/03 Zwee U better watch it!! 5 stars
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  01-Aug-2003 (R)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2004



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