written and directed by Scottish filmmaker Peter Mullan, tells the
story of four young Irish women -- composites of many actual women
-- who were incarcerated in Ireland’s now infamous Magdalene
Laundries in the late 1960s. The laundries were ostensibly reformatories
for “fallen” women (hence the name Magdalene); but they
were in fact prisons and their unfortunate inmates, slave labor.
(Nora-Jane Noone) is sent to the laundries for flirting with boys
while standing outside her orphanage home, Rose (Dorothy Duffy)
for having a baby out of wedlock, and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff)
for being raped by her cousin. Headmistress Sister Bridget (Geraldine
McEwan), runs the laundry with a cruelty born of the twisted sexual
repression and unfettered power of the Church. The portrait of President
Kennedy on her desk is a simple and shocking reminder that these
atrocities took place decades, not centuries, ago.
actors shine in what unfortunately ends up a Women in Prison picture;
yet Noone as the tough girl, Duffy as the kindly Rose, and Duff
as the group’s leader, enrich the story with their graceful
and deeply affecting acting. The initial vignettes that portray
the “sins” of the girls that lead to their confinement
are compelling as well, but the rest of the plot is mostly one act
of sadism by the nuns or desperate escape attempt by the inmates
after the other.
Mullan has answered this criticism by saying that he avoided the
three-act structure here in order to avoid raising one girl’s
story above the other.
But the structure
of the film is not especially my cavil. As brutal as these individual
oppressors are, they were not an anomaly. The laundries were but
one aspect of a systematic structure of repression that penetrated
every corner of Irish society. When Ireland was separated into two
states in 1922, the newly independent South adopted a “de-anglicization”
program along the lines prescribed by the revivalist Gaelic Irish
movement of the time. In alliance with the Catholic Church, the
Republic adopted the rhetoric of the cultural nationalists and built
an insular society as xenophobic and anti-modern as Franco’s
Spain during the same time period. This formula for control is remarkable
not in its originality, sadly, but in its similarity to every unholy
alliance between a fascistic state and religion today.
by law and by geography, Irish society by 1960 had conflated into
a zeitgeist of hysterical religiosity and “pure” Irish-ness
and is still recovering today. It is therefore not surprising, for
instance, that the families of the women in the film instigated
their confinement. This context is missing from the film almost
entirely and would have raised Magdalene to the level of the great
social justice films of Mullan’s mentor, Ken Loach.
The Church has condemned the movie as hyperbole, but Irish newspapers
investigated and confirmed Magdalene’s allegations, and the
film did very well there. Whatever its shortcomings as a film, The
Magdalene Sisters succeeds as an object lesson of the tragic
consequences to human dignity and freedom that result from state
sponsored religion, a lesson that bears oft repeating. Above all,
Magdalene, as an artifact of recovered history, gives voice to the
spirit of those thousands of Irish women who suffered behind the
wall of silence and stone for too long.
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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003