Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

'The Magdalene Sisters' is a fictionalized story based on true events that tells of the harrowing experiences of three young women in Ireland during the 1960s when they are sent to a Magdalene Asylum, a Catholic institute run by nuns for 'fallen' women to repent in the manner of Mary Magdalene. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped at a wedding, so her shamed family whisks her away to one of the asylums. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gives birth out of wedlock - her child is immediately put up for adoption and she is sent away. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a girl at an orphanage, is condemned to an asylum for simply being too attractive and drawing the interest of neighbourhood bosys. The asylum they are sent to - the places were apparently mostly laundries - is run by the cruel Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) who enjoys regularly counting the rolls of money she earns by using her 'inmates' as free labour.

What follows is in many ways predictably formulaic as we are introduced to the harsh routine of the asylum. The focus is mainly on the three new arrivals as well as the slightly flaky Crispina (Eileen Walsh) as they acclimatize to their new surroundings. Initially of course their thoughts are on escape or eventual 'release', but failed attempts and cruel punishments together with the passage of time begin to break their spirits as they resign themselves to their fates. Each of the girls has her own problems and means of coping; and in the same way, the nuns running the place have their own means of keeping their charges in line and dishing out pain and humiliation. Fragile friendships are forged as the young women endure tremendous hardship.

It's not difficult to imagine that this film is based on the true nature of some of these 'asylums', if the human proclivity for exploiting and abusing others is anything to go by. The sheer hopelessness of such a place is hard to imagine, but the film does a very good job of conveying it. It would have been easy to go the typical maudlin route, but despite being devoid of any real surprises there's something stark and truthful about the film that elevates it above other similar fare. The structure of the story is typical, but it manages to avoid being cliched and trite. It's restrained and very moody. And also darkly humorous at times (witness the 'You're not a man of god!' scene in which a priest strips down and runs naked across a field after developing a rash). There isn't much backstory to the characters but we get to know them fairly well during the film's runtime and they are believable and their gradual progression to a state of numb acceptance is quite tragic. The performances are terrific - as with all things in the film, restrained and with a touch of subtlety. Geraldine McEwan's performance as Sister Bridget is particularly noteworthy, with her character usually being quite cold and frightening but on the odd occasion convincingly charming and obsequious. There must be something about playing villains of this nature that brings out the best in actors!

The ending is the only real area where the film disappoints, with a rather facile conclusion that arrives abruptly. I suppose a downbeat conclusion would have been too much, but this felt unearned and unsatisfying. That caveat aside, 'The Magdalene Sisters' is a very good film that presents a bleak look into an immoral (and now thankfully defunct) institution that was bent on trading in human suffering while hiding behind the impenetrable shield of religious righteousness. Somber and hardly popcorn fare, this is a film that deserves serious attention.


Darwin said...

I remember watching this late on TV once without knowing what it was called - and yeah the ending was rather disappointing, so much so I can't even remember how it ended! The movie did a great job at portraying how bleak the whole situation was which I found rather depressing to be honest...but then again that just shows they did a good job with the movie!

Antimatter said...

The ending was meant to be a hopeful one, but it felt tacked on. And yeah it was quite depressing, but given the subject matter only the likes of Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) would have dared infuse it with gut busting comedy!