The Magdalene Sisters
It has been ten years since Peter Mullan’s uncompromising film about the Catholic Church’s abuse of women in Ireland won the highest honour at the Venice Film Festival: the Golden Lion; however, watching it now, its impassioned anger is far from diminished. Mullan’s own childhood growing up in a working-class Catholic home, tainted by an abusive father, sets the tone for much of the film. Considering the recently emerging evidence of institutional child abuse across Britain, this portrait, re-watched a full decade after initial release, serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of unquestioned authority.
Follows the lives of three teenage girls who, for different reasons, have been incarcerated in one of Ireland’s infamous ‘Magdalene Laundries’, Mullan uses his film to explore the darker recesses of institutional abuse. The ‘Magdalene Laundries’ were instituted in the 1880s in order effectively to imprison young women deemed to have “fallen” in the eyes of society. Margaret, who was raped by her cousin at a wedding, Bernadette, who merely expresses an inkling of sexuality, and Rose, who gives birth out of wedlock, each find themselves demonized by the conservative Irish society and abandoned at the Magdalene Asylum by their tyrannical fathers. Just as the Biblical prostitute, Mary Magdalene, was supposed to have worked for penance, so too the girls are forced to perform slave labour for the benefit of the convent and supposedly their souls.
The institutional corruption of the Magdalene Asylum, under the sadistic leadership of Sister Bridget, Mother Superior, compels the viewer to question any sense of redemption that such houses professed to provide. After countless beatings and sexual abuse, darkly ironic considering the reason for their incarceration, the mantra inscribed above the girls’ bed is shown to be a fallacy: ‘God is just’. Indeed, if this is the corporeal manifestation of God’s divine will then either there is no God, or he is not one worthy of devotion. It is this absence of God to which the film relentlessly returns.
Set in 1964, just as the Western world is embarking upon the free-love experiment, Ireland is shown to be stuck in a past that sees shame and guilt as the only permissible expressions of female sexuality. Whilst we are told at the conclusion to the film that the final ‘Magdalene Laundry’ was closed in 1996, one gets the impression that Mullan does not see the social values of this society as having progressed one day beyond the world of his film.
Mullan’s choice of visual allusion is startling but reveals the truly sinister nature of this institution. The wood-paneled dormitory, the bland uniforms, the shaving-off of the girls’ hair, and a scene in which the naked young women are judged by two giggling sisters on breast size and pubic hair, recalls Spielberg’s cinematic masterpiece, Schindler’s List. Much like the early-twentieth century horror, it is through a systematic denial of selfhood that the Magdalene Asylum attempts to suppress and control these women. However, where Spielberg’s film was redeemed to some extent by the actions of Oskar Schindler, Mullan’s work is a relentless depiction in which there is no saviour.
If The Magdalene Sisters serves a wider purpose as a film, it is to memorialize the approximately thirty thousand women who were forced to live in such institutions. Whilst some have condemned the work as anti-Catholic, it is hard to believe that anyone could begin to defend the abuse depicted in the film. The fact that former inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the film stopped short of the horrific realities of the Magdalene Asylums speaks volumes.
W. J. Humphries.