Goodbye Gruel World
The Magdalene Sisters Whacks Irish Catholic Sexual Repression With a Flying Mallet
Until their doors were closed in 1996, the Irish branch of the Roman Catholic Church sent more than 30,000 "fallen women"--prostitutes, single mothers, social activists, the poor and orphaned--to Dickensian forced-labor camps called Magdalene asylums. Speaking was not allowed, food consisted of foul gruel; each day was a grind of backbreaking work in the for-profit laundries, uneasy sleep in hard-bed barracks, and punishment under the watch of sadistic Sisters of Mercy. The unfortunate inmates sometimes lived out their entire lives inside institution walls. The Magdalene Sisters, director/writer Peter Mullan's heartfelt indictment of this long obscure atrocity, is righteous, but its characters are unnecessarily reductive representatives of Innocence and Evil, with scant interest spent on the gray areas that inform the most awful actions.
The Magdalene Sisters opens with a series of miscalculations that reoccur throughout the film. At a 1964 Dublin wedding, a priest, accompanied by a group of Gaelic musicians, pounds with mounting creepy ecstasy on a drum while Mullan crosscuts to young Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) being raped by her cousin, to shots of crucifixes, and then to pious local menfolk. As the music climaxes, it fairly well looks like the priest will do the same.
After this blunt hammering of the film's themes, Margaret is sent packing by her never-seen parents to a cold, miserable Magdalene asylum run by queen bitch Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, easily out-eviling Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched). We then journey through several overly compressed years in the spiritual charnel house as seen through the eyes of two other victims: Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a spirited minx, imprisoned for being attractive and looking at boys; and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), damned to the asylum when she conceives a child outside of wedlock.
The film achieves its first, no-caveats fine moment when two of the girls attempt to escape. Eventually, one succeeds, but the other gives in to long term Stockholm syndrome--believing herself to be unable to function in the real world, she turns back to the asylum to finish her life sentence. In-between, the film is a relentless horror-show litany of church-sanctioned awfulness. Whippings, starvation, isolation--nothing is spared in the church's efforts to turn their charges into hopeless, scripture-quoting automatons. (The Vatican has condemned the film.)
How does one add nuance to such a tale of indisputable power abuse? Mullan, a fine, accomplished actor (The Claim, Trainspotting) and promising director, never finds out. With his tendency for over-underlining his scenes and a too sober tone, Mullan also allows the film's events to slide dangerously close to camp. Two particularly demented nuns round up the girls for an accounting of their sins, which necessitates the girls stripping down to their christening suits. As the nuns cackle with sadistic Sapphic intent, and the roving camera shows all, you could be excused for thinking you had stumbled in on a midnight Apex screening of Catholic Teen Love Slaves.
Overstatement again undermines things with the appearance of Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who, under Mullan's micromanaged direction, starts out a sweet simpleton but quickly dissolves into a Snake Pit-level wild-eyed and drooling insane person. You'd have to look to Crispin Glover to find a similar level of alienating histrionics. On the other hand, the incredibly skilled Noone allows her Bernadette a recurring strain of nastiness without betraying her character's core decency. The film's second triumph comes when Bernadette tends to a dying woman who earlier went mad and then betrayed her. Bernadette mocks the pitiful old woman but spares her a final delicate kiss.
It would have helped if Mullan had explored something beyond blunt (if repressed) sexual power as a motivation for his cruel nuns and pompous clergy. More importantly, we never learn why the girls' parents are so eagerly complicit in their children's doom.
Still, it isn't so much Mullan's rookie-director gaffes that rob his film of its aggregate power, as it is current events outperforming historic awfulness. To a degree, many of us have become numbed by the Catholic Church's dumbfounding day-in, day-out support of serial child-rapist priests, its traditional limits on women's rights, and recent anti-gay spew. And our reaction to this film, like so many other more important things, suffers for it.