Main cast: Geraldine McEwan (Sister Bridget), Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret), Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette), Dorothy Duffy (Rose), Eileen Walsh (Crispina), Daniel Costello (Father Fitzroy), Mary Murray (Una O’Connor), Frances Healy (Sister Jude), Eithne McGuinness (Sister Clementine), and Phyllis MacMahon (Sister Augusta)
Director: Peter Mullan
The Magdalene Sisters has been branded as anti-Catholic. This movie is about three young Irish women in the 1960s that are sent to the Magdalene Sanctuary for reasons that will seem bewildering to more liberal societies. Margaret has been raped by her cousin and when she accuses him of the crime, everyone including her own family turns his or her back on her. After all, she’s now a fallen woman, don’t you know? Bernadette flirts with boys and hence deemed to be in need of spiritual correction. To the Sanctuary she goes. Rose gives birth to a child out of wedlock. Hello, Sanctuary. This movie is their story and how they survive the brutal “training” and “education” at the Sanctuary.
It’s supposed to be based on a true story, and if it is, I am glad that I never have to experience the horrific misogyny and brutality these women encounter, misogyny and brutality that are sanctioned by heinous interpretation of the Bible. The residents of the Sanctuary have no rights and they are beaten and tortured at whim by the nuns and the occasional male clergy that passes through the place.
Unfortunately, while the three actresses playing the young women put on valiant performances, the same cannot be said of the script, which director Peter Mullan also wrote. I won’t deny that I cry and gape in horror throughout this movie and I ultimately cheer the three women on, but it does not escape me that this movie demonizes Catholicism as much as it accuses the Church of demonizing women. Not a single nun or clergyman in this movie comes off as halfway human, in fact, they come off like cartoon characters from an animated snuff film. As a result, The Magdalene Sisters can be a very effective movie about the ugly side of Catholicism and its treatment of women, the most brutal treatment often coming from other women themselves, but at the same time, is this movie saying anything new? If anything, it only drives home how ugly religion can be when the concept of faith is abused as a legitimate excuse to treat other human beings in inhumane manner. Yes, I wonder how the nuns and clergymen of the Magdalene Sanctuary can even imagine that what they are doing will be approved by the deity they worship.
But I also wonder… all of them can’t be this evil, surely? For every ten pedophile rapist priests exposed in the news, I also know just as many tolerant and understanding men and women of the Church. The Magdalene Sanctuary is portrayed as a holiday resort for the sadistic refugees of your friendly neighborhood concentration camp. When’s the gassing going to start?
If The Magdalene Sisters hadn’t gotten carried away with its demonization of religion that it soon descends into cartoonish melodrama, it would have been a thought-provoking, necessary movie to watch. As it is, it is just a one-sided, very lopsided propaganda against Catholicism. It’s an effective propaganda and it definitely has many valid and thought-provoking things to say, but its very obvious and unsubtle bias prevent it from being as great as it could have been otherwise.