Magdalene Sisters

Movie Review by Toby White

Starring: Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh
Director: Peter Mullan

One can imagine the pitch: a film about an oppressive Catholic correction institution set in 1960s Ireland. Depressing it is. Disturbing it is. Friday night entertainment fodder it is not. But it doesn’t stop THE MAGDALENE SISTERS being a marvellous piece of filmmaking.

At the outset we are introduced to the three main protagonists of the title: Margaret is raped by her cousin at a wedding, Bernadette overtly flirts with local boys in the school playground and Rose is cradling her baby, born out of wedlock. Three ‘crimes’ for which the girls themselves are not the victims, but the perpetrators, in the eyes of their community and hence sentenced indefinitely to a life of servitude and brutal punishment at a local Magdalene asylum run by the now infamous Sisters of Mercy.

Director Peter Mullan (of ORPHANS fame but would more likely be remembered as the Mother Superior (Swanney) in TRAINSPOTTING – don’t you just love the irony) has absolutely no qualms when it comes to unsettling the audience. The style is gritty, grainy and pushed to every edge. The opening sequence of Margaret’s rape at the wedding is covered in tight close-ups as she observes word of her rape going round the guests, the dialogue muted out by the music but cleverly so as we can only imagine, as she does, what is being said about her. It sets a perfect precedent for this hugely bold undertaking to go against the commercial norm especially since this is the sort of film that could be seen as arty and keep commercial audiences away in droves. Save the odd gratuitous moment – an extreme close-up of a badly bloodied eye – Mullan is careful not to saturate the film with violence thereby keeping the implications of what went on in such an institution as purely psychological. Contributing to this are the appropriately understated performances, in particular Geraldine McEwan’s performance as Sister Brigdet, for the most part delivered under the apparently reassuring nun’s wimple, is so measured it makes her all the more sinister.

There’s certainly nothing exciting in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, nothing that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The storyline runs a rather predictable course – I have no qualms about telling you that they eventually get out – but it is gripping and, significantly, shows how film can be an informative, moving and thought-provoking medium. It’s a shame to think that not enough people will go and see this.

4 out of 6 stars

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