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Sister act

A review of The Magdalene Sisters

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Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), Rose (Dorothy Duffy), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff).
  • Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), Rose (Dorothy Duffy), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff).

*The Magdalene Sisters (R)
Miramax


This slightly fictionalized account of four of the women held captive in one of Ireland's notorious Magdalene Asylums during the late 1960s opens with a wedding reception. A Catholic priest bangs out a rhythm on the bodhran and sings a traditional love song while a young girl, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), is raped in an upstairs room by her cousin Kevin.

Innocent and naive, Margaret whispers what's happened to her to a friend and soon the reception is swirling with the news. The next morning, Margaret is dragged from her childhood bed and escorted by her parish priest to a convent where she will be forced to scrub clothes in a laundry, unpaid, seven days a week, and will be subjected to sexual humiliation and physical punishment for an unknown period of time.

Margaret, Rose (Dorothy Duffy), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) and Crispina (Eileen Walsh), represent just a few of the 30,000 women across Ireland deemed "fallen women" and subjected to a life of slavery in Catholic laundries under the auspices of the Magdalene Sisters, some for bearing children out of wedlock, some for being raped, and some for offenses as innocent as flirting. Hardly a historic anomaly or merely a blip signaling abuse within the church, the Magdalenes represented the double standards of a society where domestic abuse was rampant and where the church's mandates regarding sexuality were practically medieval.

The Magdalene Asylums, originally conceived in the 18th century as asylums for prostitutes, operated profitably in Ireland until 1996 when the last one was finally closed. Directed by Peter Mullan, this film, basically a women-in-prison flick, tells the story of life inside the convent where Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) rules with an iron fist, issuing beatings and forced head-shavings with the wicked fervor of a habit-laden Nurse Ratchet. The girls are to pay constant penance for their "sins," and are brutally punished when they are the least bit out of line, or when they merely ask questions.

Inspired by the 1997 British documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, The Magdalene Sisters uses all the tricks of cinematic technique to dramatize stories that were originally told in one-on-one interviews, and does so effectively. The acting is strong, especially Noone's as the headstrong Bernadette, furious at the injustice of her incarceration for basically being too attractive, and young enough not to wither under the regime's tactics. Dorothy Duffy's Rose, ripped from the hospital immediately after giving birth to her illegitimate baby, is heartbreaking in a scene where her breasts are engorged with milk and she has no release or pain relief. Duff's Margaret -- quiet, watchful and hollow-eyed -- is quite good at portraying a slow understanding of what's happening around her, without saying a word. And Walsh is devastating as the simple-minded Crispina, separated from her son and systematically abused by the resident priest.

The film's midsection goes on a bit too long, but the dramatic denouement and climax erase any viewer fatigue immediately.

The Magdalene Sisters won a much-deserved Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was immediately disavowed by the Vatican for its anti-Catholic prejudice. But audiences have rallied for the film, demonstrating both the public's need for the Catholic Church to own up to some of its excesses and an appetite for well-told tales of historic inhumanities carried out in the shadows of powerful institutions.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Kimball's Twin Peak

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