Don’t expect a nuanced argument out of Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters,” a preachy message movie that has the tone of a long, monotonous bleat. Mullan skewers the Magdalene asylums of Ireland, where Catholic girls were sent for years, sometimes lifetimes, for such “offenses” as smiling at a boy too long or being raped. There they performed contract labor, mostly laundry, with 100 percent of the profits going to the church. It wasn’t until 1996 that the last of the asylums closed.
“THE MAGDALENE SISTERS” is more like investigative journalism than drama, anecdotal in its revelation of injustices.
Mullan, a gruff Scottish actor-writer-director, offers a grab bag of the worst the Magdalene asylums had to offer: the unilateral way girls were imprisoned for minor or nonexistent offenses, the routine beatings, the totalitarian environment and psychological abuse, and the nuns’ deep-seated greed and corruption.
Yet he also provides an artificial sense of closure to the stories of the four young women at the story’s center. For the most part, their fates don’t seem representative of the thousands of girls in whose names this movie was made. (It begins and ends by illuminating a wall full of names, like the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.)
That said, there’s plenty of powerful stuff here. The movie, which begins in 1964 Dublin, is at its most effective showing how suddenly the girls’ lives are taken away from them.
ROBBED OF YOUTH
After Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a wedding reception, she’s hustled out of bed the next morning and put in a car, and off she goes. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has a baby out of wedlock, and barely gets a chance to see him before the adoption process is under way and she’s imprisoned. And Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is sent from an orphanage to the asylum after she lingers a little too long while some boys ogle her from across a fence.
Once inside, pragmatic Margaret and empathetic Rose fade to the background as Mullan focuses on the wild-eyed, rebellious Bernadette and the innocent, mentally disabled Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who’s exploited by a priest for sex.
In Bernadette’s case, we see how inside the asylum, a girl with a minor naughty streak can turn mean and violent. Like a prisoner facing life without parole, she has little to gain from good behavior, so she starts cruel, petty wars with the other girls. And while trying to facilitate her escape, she essentially turns into the temptress the nuns say she is.
The nuns, meanwhile, are led by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan in a fine bit of honey-voiced villainy), who uses either her quick wits or her whip to keep the girls in line. Sister Bridget and her plump nuns have a liberal interpretation of the vow of poverty, as their daily breakfasts attest — with plenty of syrup, butter and bacon.
But there are only so many examples of cruelty and oppression Mullan can trot out before he starts repeating himself or lapsing into melodramatic contrivances.
By the end, “The Magdalene Sisters” has made the same point so many times that your sympathy starts to level off. When that happens, the movie becomes less than the great public service Mullan clearly thinks it is.© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.