The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

There’s a certain genre of films as well-defined as say, the Western, Film Noir, or even Romantic Comedies. The genre I’m speaking of is “I-can’t-believe-that-happened cinema.” This is a genre made up of little-known true stories where people with power abuse those below them. These include films like Rosewood, Rabbit Proof Fence, Matewan, Mississippi Burning, and just about every movie with a Holocaust setting. These films are intended to antagonize the audience and to get them to ask, “How could something like this happen?” The Magdalene Sisters is a film that an audience will walk away with very much wondering how something so cruel, amoral, and heartless could carry on in our modern world.

In 1960s Ireland, the Catholic Church was life. The Magdalene Sisters sheds light on the little known work asylums, which were institutions set up to help girls who had transgressed against God. The girls admitted to the asylum, a kind of extreme reform school, are there to work away their sins and reach forgiveness, thus saving their immortal souls. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) had a child out of wedlock. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) was caught by school officials for being too pretty and “tempting” teen boys. But perhaps the most startling admission is Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), admitted to the asylum by her own father for the grievous “sin” of being raped by a cousin. The Magdalene Sisterhood asylum is run by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), an old nun who subscribes to the “cruel to be kind” theory in spades. The girls at the asylum toil tirelessly in sweatshop conditions, are physically abused by the nuns, sexually abused by the asylum’s priest and are left hopeless of escaping. Girls who run away are turned back in by their parents or cooperative police. Some of the women at Magdalene have been there for their entire lives. It seems the only ways out are death or joining the convent. Get thee to a nunnery indeed.

The Magdalene Sisters is full of sadistic moments that will shock an audience. One of the most disturbing scenes transpires late into the film. The girls of the asylum line up completely nude, shivering and crying. Two nuns, with a nauseating smugness, chortle and play a “game” seeing who has the largest breasts and the smallest nipples, among other things. When the “winner” of this sick experiment stands forward and clenches her teeth from crying so hard, one of the nuns asks, “”What are you crying for? It’’s just a game.”

The young ladies at the film’s core deliver magnificent performances tinged with honest emotional devastation. Noone is the standout as Bernadette. She utilizes steely rebellious gazes that speak volumes about her character’s resourcefulness. Noone can convey more poignant emotion in the raising of an eyebrow or the biting of her thumb than most starlets can ever hope to express.

McEwan is terrifying as the head nun and head source of torment. Her grandmotherly voice, tinted with an Irish brogue, is enough to send shivers down your spine. She is surely 2003’s greatest movie villain, next to Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Writer/director Peter Mullan keeps the suffering at an almost unbearable level but allows the spark of human resistance to keep us going. His film is one brimming with anger and disbelief; ensuring the audience will experience that same burning anger before the credits roll. Mullan’’s passionate story can be deemed one-sided, but then again, what exactly is the other side going to say about the abuse of innocent girls for life-long slave labor? Not much I suspect.

The Magdalene Sisters is a somber, unflinching look at the abuses of the church as well as the upward battle for equality women faced. This film is tough to sit through. It might be too much for some, especially if they don’t have a strong relationship with the Catholic church to begin with. The decades of abuse The Magdalene Sisters sheds light on is incredible, but it’s also a beginning for healing. Before we can overcome atrocities we must acknowledge them, and this is something I’m sure Mullan is arguing that the Church is failing to do. In fact, the Catholic church has denounced The Magdalene Sisters for its portrayal of church abuses. Something tells me Mullan is not surprised.

Not only is The Magdalene Sisters an eye-opener, it’s also great cinema. The characters, pacing, realistic sharp-eyed direction, and superb acting render it more than just a snuff film. This film is more than watching people mistreated and suffer; this is a film about perseverance and resolve. It’s about the enduring human spirit. I’ll gladly (well, not gladly) watch sequences of misery in order to see human triumph. This isn’t just a sad story, it’s exceptionally well told and acted and it bathes you in the pain of its characters. You feel their heartbreak and tragedy, but you also feel their victory.

The Magdalene Sisters is, without a doubt, the must-see feel-bad movie of this year. Now, there will be plenty out there saying, “Why should I pay to see a movie that will make me feel bad?” This is my defense: because the movie is so good at having its fears, tortures, and ultimate triumphs resonate that it makes you authentically feel something. And isn’’t this the purpose of art, to feel something? The Magdalene Sisters is unflinching, passionately powerful and unforgettable. Just one more item to get your blood boiling: the last of these Sisterhood work asylum closed in 1996.

Nate’s Grade: A

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on October 2, 2003, in 2003 Movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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