A review of “The Magdalene Sisters” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for violence, nudity, sexual content, and language

Run Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes



Emotional cruelty weighs heavy in this bold and unflinching look at the ignoble underbelly of the Catholic Church.

Ireland in the 1960s was a hotbed of conservative controversy.  While women’s lib was captivating the world with its freeform joie-de-vivre, the Irish female was dancing a more rigid jig. Giving birth to a child out of wedlock, gazing at a young man with lust in your eyes, molestations by a family member or even mental retardation were considered personal sins by strict Irish Catholic tenets, and the punishment was swift and merciless.

As a result of real or imagined transgressions, a group of young women find themselves remanded to life inside the Magdalene Asylum, one of a chain of Irish convents devoted to the atonement of sins by virtue of indefinite sentences of servitude.  The asylums specialize in impeccable laundry, turning out pristine linens laundered by young women who are rescuing themselves from eternal damnation by exposure to inhumane brutality and vicious slave labor.

Rose, Bernadette and Margaret (Dorothy Duffy, Nora-Jane Noone, and Anne-Marie Duff) are the latest trio of “victims” to be imprisoned by Magdalene’s walls. They are banished to Magdalene by unforgiving family members who turn a deaf ear to pleas for forgiveness.  Under the harsh tutelage of Sister Bridget (a wicked Geraldine McEwen), the girls are schooled in the fine art of hand-washing, relentlessly scrub-a-dub-dubbing until their fingers are raw and bleeding.  Beatings, starvation and humiliation are also in a day’s work for these ostracized unfortunates. The sisters wield their authority with intolerant spite, going so far as to line up their frightened charges rank-and-file in order to censure their naked bodies, fraternity hazing style.

“Magdalene” applies its damning social ammunition slowly and with finesse. The girls themselves are a composite of the nearly 30,000 real young women who suffered at the hands of these medieval tyrantesses alleged to be implementing God’s work.

The last of the Magdalene Asylums closed its doors in (gulp) 1996.  I saw the film for the first time this summer, at the Irish country home of friends whose linens had been sent out to Magdalene for decades. Their relatively fresh knowledge of the Church’s ugly local secret is an acute blow to both their national pride and their lifelong religious beliefs.

The Magdalene Sisters (ironically titled the Sisters of Mercy) are depicted factually, according to the research of no-nonsense director Peter Mullan, as a barbaric order whose sense of duty and religion is grounded in malevolent deeds. Sister Bridget makes “Cuckoo’s Nest” Nurse Ratched look positively pious by comparison. The film’s strength lies not in the harrowing crimes of its namesakes, but in the feisty spirit of the maltreated girls whose determination to escape their Dickensian nightmare transcends all.