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The Magdalene Sisters (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director's commentary; Two short films by Peter Mullan: 'Fridge' and 'Close'; Cast auditions footage; Audio descriptive track; Trailer.

AT the start of Peter Mullan’s controversial, but award-winning, The Magdalene Sisters, a woman is raped at a wedding by her cousin. But far from being supported by her family in the aftermath of the attack, she is shunned and sent away to the ‘refuge’ of the Catholic Church in a bid to find repentance.

The same treatment is dealt out to a young mother, who has given birth out of wedlock, and to a pretty young temptress, merely because it is felt that her blossoming good looks may undermine her future.

All are sent to one of The Magdalene Asylums run by the Sisters of Mercy on behalf of the Catholic Church, where they are forced to work 364 days a year, unpaid, half-starved, beaten and humiliated. Their sentence was indefinite and was largely dependent on whether they were rescued by family members or successful in their bid to escape.

Thousands of women lived and died there, and the last laundry closed in 1996.

Mullan’s film, a Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival 2002, has been condemned by the Vatican Church, which described its narrative as ‘clearly false’, but has won many friends in film circles for its superb direction and quality of performances.

Its director claims the film is based on ‘true events’ and challenged the Vatican to face up to its past and the cruelty dished out by nuns in Irish asylums, stating that he was not imaginative enough to dream up such scandals.

But whatever the debate surrounding the work, there is no denying the film’s power, or its emotional intensity, or the fact that it has succeeded in highlighting the plight of countless young women who were sent to work in the Magdalene laundries.

Anne-Marie Duff, Dorothy Duffy and Nora-Jane Noone star as the three women in question, who are sent to an asylum presided over by Geraldine McEwan’s formidable Sister Bridget, a profits-fixated nun who is not afraid to use intimidation to bully her women into submission.

The ensuing couple of hours chronicles their attempts to come to terms with their situation, make friends with those around them and, eventually, to escape - all the while mindful of the suffering they will endure should they fail to adhere to the rules, or be caught.

And it is tough stuff indeed, fuelled by some excellent performances, and Mullan’s tight direction, which lends an air of trepidation to proceedings, whenever the women ‘step out of line’.

The veteran McEwan, especially, leaves a lasting impression as the chilling Sister Bridget, a strict disciplinarian, prone to moments of self-doubt, whose outwardly quiet demeanour belies the worst kind of monster, while the likes of Duff and Noone do a fine job in depicting the hopelessness of their situation.

Noone, in particular, is on terrific form as the feisty former temptress, whose happy-go-lucky spirit quickly becomes quashed by the climate of fear created by the nuns, while audiences are likely to find themselves cheering along when she mounts a final bid for freedom.

Yet Mullan’s film is far more than just a Shawshank Redemption-style countdown to a feelgood escape, given that it sets out to expose the hitherto forgotten suffering endured by thousands of women for too long. It is an uncompromising, and occasionally harrowing, insight into a social injustice which succeeds through its raw style alone. See it.

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