The Catholic Church is not faring too well in the public relations department these days, and The Magdalene Sisters certainly isn't going to help its case.
The same closed-rank patriarchal network that gave pedophiles a change of venue when they were caught "misbehaving" allowed sadistic behavior to flourish in Ireland's "Magdalene Asylums." These institutions were devised as virtual prisons for girls accused of "moral crimes" against society, "crimes" that could range from flirtatiousness to being raped.
Irish actor Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe), who directed The Magdalene Sisters, gives his film the science fiction feel of Handmaid's Tale, although the dramatized events actually took place during the history of the asylums from the 19th century until 1996.
Run by zealous nuns, the Magdalene laundries were brutal but profitable institutions that operated as reform schools -- with little promise of release -- for wayward girls. The girls and women held captive in the asylums worked tirelessly for their penance doing, in a neatly symbolic turn, the church's dirty laundry.
Mullan's film follows three girls trapped in the dreadful time warp of a Dublin asylum during the ironically anything-goes '60s. Passive, wan Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has a baby out of wedlock and is forced to give the child up for adoption; the luscious orphan Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is caught flirting with neighborhood boys and promptly ejected from the orphanage. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a cousin and packed off by her furious father.
Once at the asylum, Mullan shows circumstances that are even more pitiful, like the slow-witted Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who can't follow through on her thoughts. She has a telling abhorrence for washing priests' collars and has had a child, who occasionally stands outside the institution's gate hoping for a glimpse of her. It is the scenes where children are brutally separated from their mothers that have a harsher impact than sadistic scenes of beatings and sexual humiliation.
Mullan, who is a talented but didactic filmmaker, tends to overplay the beautiful, milky skinned innocence of these young girls rather than finding fault with a religious system that has an inherent problem with the female sex. The film only underscores the inseparable union between female chastity and female virtue.
The Magdalene Sisters adds a socially crusading veneer to what is essentially a revamped women's prison picture a la 1950's Caged. In place of the leering lesbos and prison camp mamas, the film's brutal enforcers are as far from the beneficent Sound of Music songbirds as you could get. The prune-faced asylum overseer, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), is a sadist par excellence who taunts the girls by calling them imbeciles and whores. And she seems to relish any opportunity to practice her willow branch markmanship. There is not one nun who offers a glimpse of humanity. Even Sister Bridget's surprising tears during a screening of The Bells of St. Mary's seem to testify to her hypocritical and vainglorious view of her profession.
Like Lilya 4-Ever, the recent Swedish film about a girl involved in international prostitution, The Magdalene Sisters is often an exercise in endurance, as Mullan shows the depressing toll the institution eventually takes on the girls. Mullan is clearly not interested in subtlety. His film is a hyperbolic, nearly political tract meant to inspire a strong, emotional response from its audience. And on that count, he succeeds. It is impossible not to feel angered and disgusted by the concept of these asylums.