The Magdalene Sisters

For the second review in a row, I chose to write about a movie based on true events (if not necessarily true). For this week, I have another terrifying chapter in history, this one from Ireland’s recent past.

The movie is “The Magdalene Sisters,” written and directed by Peter Mullan and released in 2002. I only mention the date because it will be important later.

The film opens with short introductions to the girls who will be sent to St. Magdalene’s, a launderette/asylum for “wayward” women run by sadistic nuns.  We meet the “fallen” fairly quickly; Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who is raped by her cousin at a family wedding; Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a pretty flirt living in an orphanage; and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who just gave birth to baby boy out of wedlock.

The girls are sold into slavery and dumped into hell by their families and caretakers; they’re forced to work in a laundry for no money, allowed no contact with the outside world (or even each other), and given no hope of ever getting out.

“Work shall set you free,” a motto inscribed over entrances to concentration camps, didn’t even apply. One of the most shocking aspects of the film, other than this really happened, is that mixed with our young heroines are old women who have lived their entire adult lives as slaves, women who have lost the words to speak about their oppression.

McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” got a better deal. As Bernadette asks, what crime could possibly warrant this punishment? In all honestly, criminals then and now get treated better, but then criminals are not young women living in a world where even thinking about sex is a mortal sin. What a legacy Eve left her daughters.

As horrific as the story is, the film isn’t perfect; while focusing on the bigger picture, the characters do get lost in the reels. As the script skips around them, trying to cram as much oppression into the frame as possible, we can’t get to know them to well. The power of the film is diminished in the end, especially after learning that, despite some personal epilogues, the characters are just sketches of real-life women.

What’s most horrifying is the final statistics; some 30,000 woman went through these horrors, and the last launderette closed in 1996, a mere six years before the film was released. “The Magdalene Sisters” is not what I consider pleasant viewing, but it’s an important film, one to see and discuss and remember.

“The Magdalene Sisters” (2002)

Written and directed by Peter Mullan

Starring: Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret)

 Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette)

 Dorothy Duffy (Rose)