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Magdalene Sisters, The

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 08/20/03 14:26:08

"Not just 'The Magdalene Redemption'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I’m sure I have made note of this before, but over the past few years since the passing of 2000, many cultures and countries outside the U.S. have been going through a period of self-examination through their films. Many movies from outside the U.S. that make it to our shores have been questioning the customs and marriage practices that have been dominating their culture. Last year alone, Iran had “Late Marriage” while India had “Monsoon Wedding,” and of course there was that little Greek Wedding movie you may have heard about. All of them questioning the values of arranged marriages and ethnicity. While some countries have been examining their present, other countries have been re-examining their past as a way of cleaning the slate and starting anew.

Ireland, whether it knows it or not, seems to be in a period of self-reflection. After last year’s “Bloody Sunday”—which chronicled January 30, 1972, the day a deadly riot broke out in Northern Ireland during a peaceful protest—we now get “The Magdalene Sisters,” a brutal and tragic story of three women (not sisters) who have been taken away from their homes because they have either been raped, have had children out of wedlock or have been seen as being too flirty around the boys. They get put into a correctional institution where there doesn’t seem to be much of an escape. They work in laundries and are beaten mercilessly by the tyrannical nuns that run the place.

This is based on true events that happened decades ago and have been going on as late as 1996. The movie starts out by showing us how our three main protagonists, strangers to each other, fall victim to this ordeal. At a marriage reception, Margaret (Ann-Marie Duff) gets raped by her cousin, and in a brilliantly conceived and edited show of nothing but whispers without words, the story gets seemingly turned around. Margaret becomes the victim twice over when her family sentences her to the Magdalene convents.

Rose (Dorothy Duffy, who often resembles Kate Winslet) has just had a child out of wedlock. A priest coldly offers up the idea of letting the child be put up for adoption so that it wouldn’t have to go through life paying for the sins of an unwed mother. Rose reluctantly agrees, then completely changes her mind after signing the papers. Meanwhile, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) gets spotted looking a little too flirtatious with some of the boys at school. Aware that vanity, not beauty, is a sin, Bernadette becomes guilty of a crime she never committed. The two get sent to the Magdalene convent to repent for their sins.

The movie turns into a prison film of sorts as we get to know other inmates, including Crispina (Eileen Walsh), an emotionally unstable woman who keeps a smile plastered on her face as much as possible while she clings desperately to her necklace—her Saint Christopher—for comfort. The movie’s lead tyrant, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), gives quiet, pinching sermons to her prisoners when speaking in her chambers while also lashing out at anyone caught being disobedient. We sometimes wonder about the possibility of any of the girls appealing to her good graces.

We also wonder when the three main characters (or four of you count Crispina) will band together and revolt. Scottish writer/director Peter Mullan makes it clear that in this prison, it’s every woman for herself. Rose does the best she can by helping Crispina cope with her illness, but not without some tension from Bernadette, who tries to use a delivery boy’s sexual come-ons to her advantage as a means of escape. These women have no means of escape and their spirits have been deadened to the point where suicide becomes a logical means to a kind of freedom.

The story of “The Magdalene Sisters” may seem like easy pickings for an emotional gut-wrencher with hope, a la “The Shawshank Redemption,” but the story seems to have more of a purpose than that. The movie doesn’t try to condemn the Catholic church altogether, nor to use this as an excuse to exemplify the recent scandals involving it, but to chronicle a dark part of Irish history before someone else comes along and exploits it. It also serves as a religious self-examination of sorts, a conversational starting point on the essence of sin and how it may have been misinterpreted throughout the centuries. Most of all, though, it is not about the prison, but about the women who endured it and, if they were lucky enough, survived it. (It is estimated that 30,000 women died as prisoners in these convents)

Mullen uses music sparingly, often letting dead silence convey the horror. Many scenes flow in and out with little to no dialogue. He doesn’t flinch from the brutality that existed within the convent, but he also knows when to hold back. The simple close-up shot of a battered, bloody eye carries enough power in and of itself to give us an idea of the pain, torture and humility these women endured. The entire cast give brilliant performances across the board, especially Geraldine McEwan, whose first encounter with the three girls has an alternately scary, gentle and sinister tone to it.

I took a trip to Ireland about a year ago and some of the people I met there gave the impression that the country did not want to continue with some of its old ways. Though always mindful of its past, the grudges and hatred toward the British seem to have gotten tiresome and it seemed like a country optimistic toward the future (even if immigration has been getting out of control). “Bloody Sunday” and “The Magdalene Sisters” don’t come off as optimistic, but rather as an almost cathartic acceptance of responsibility. “Bloody Sunday” didn’t lay all its blame on the British and “Magdalene Sisters” doesn’t lay all its blame entirely on the Catholic church. In the end, everyone should except part of the blame, but it doesn’t have to ruin anybody’s way of life.

Movies have a way of getting groups, organizations and entire cultures to re-think and re-examine history as a means of understanding the present. I have no doubt that events such as the ones depicted in “Magdalene Sisters” continue to exist in some form or another out there in the world. Scandals in the priesthood both in America and abroad have been at the forefront of the sex-obsessed media as of late, but if the media wants to play it up because it’s “juicy,” as long as it brings about change, so much the better. And if people flock to see a brilliant piece of work such as “The Magdalene Sisters” and use it as a lesson for themselves or for future generations, that whole “New Millennium” namesake might actually mean something after all.

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