the magdalene sisters written and directed by Peter Mullan, produced by Frances Higson, with Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Eithne McGuinness and Julie Austin. 119 minutes. Opens Friday (August 1). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NNNN
unless you grew up catholic when Catholic really meant something, it's hard to understand the total control an institution can claim over lives. Watching The Magdalene Sisters is like stepping inside a Margaret Atwood dystopia, except this one actually happened. In Ireland up through the 1990s, bad girls got sent away. Most went into forced labour at laundries run by the Sisters of Mercy. Most were humiliated and abused for crimes that ranged from having babies out of wedlock to simply being too attractive a teenage girl, too much of a temptation.
Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters dramatizes soul-crushing brutality in a film that's surprisingly humane. It won a controversial top prize at last year's Venice film festival - controversial not because of any disagreement about the film's quality, but because it was a bold move to hand it the Golden Lion just up the road from the Pope.
The story begins with the Church rounding up girls like criminals, which, in the religious order of the 1960s, they were. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) gets nabbed after her cousin rapes her at a family celebration. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gets picked up for getting pregnant before marriage. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is detained for flirting with boys.
Torn from their families, they're sent to the Magdalene asylum, which the film presents as a combined government, school and penal system, all under the authority of God. Once they're there, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) lashes her charges with guilt and degradation while practically fondling the money the laundry brings in. It sounds like something out of silent melodrama, but Mullan makes this and every characterization direct and persuasive without ever resorting to cliché.
An actor himself (Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe), Mullan digs deep into character here, detailing what happens, for instance, to the pretty, spirited Bernadette in the face of the nuns' abuse. They shave her head and try to break her of what they call sinful pride. She becomes a different person. Some Magdalene girls take on the violence of the nuns who hold them hostage. Some retreat into numb obedience, or madness. Some rebel and pay the price.
So why would anyone want to watch a story that sounds so bleak? Because its emotional charge tops anything else in theatres right now. Because the writing and performances are all first-rate. Because it's so good.