Magdalene Sisters, The

The Magdalene Sisters (15)

Peter Mullan’s follow-up to his directorial debut Orphans is a multi-layered, deeply felt and highly controversial ‘expose’ of the Catholic Church and its methods of punishing stray young women by sending them to the Magdalene Laundries – a cross between borstal and convent.

Set up in the early 19th century, the laundries were the destination of any young woman who sinned. Sanctioned by church and state, they were run by nuns who operated as virtual jailers with carte blanche to rule and abuse their charges as they saw fit.

Meanwhile the church condoned and the state turned a blind eye as generations of young women, who had committed no crime, were exposed to the iron will of a religion based on punishment, fear, humiliation and hypocrisy.

Set in the mid 1960s, The Magdalene Sisters centres on a trio of young women, all packed off to the laundries for their various wrongs and shame. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her own cousin but is expelled from the family because she ‘allowed’ it to happen. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan, looks and flirts with local schoolboys and attracts the attention of her warden. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has a child out of wedlock.

The terrifying implications of a closed faith gone mad are present from the outset, but Mullan’s riveting and deeply unsettling drama goes far, far further by alleging that the laundries and the cold, inflexible, and small-minded women who ran them, were a breeding ground for a brand of sadism that would have done credit to the Gestapo.

“All the mortal sins in the world couldn’t justify this place,” says Bernadette at one point.

There is an obvious agenda here – in his most outspoken attack Mullan has compared the Catholic Church to the Taliban – but it is built on evidence gleaned from a succession of witnesses and the knowledge that the last laundry closed just seven years ago.

He stops short of alleging widespread lesbian attacks on inmates by staff – a move that would have diluted the film’s power rather than inflame it – but uses compelling evidence to suggest that genuine abuse, either physical or sexual, was ignored in favour of religious dogma. Rights didn’t come into it.

Hence when it becomes apparent that a young simpleton is being used by a priest as a sexual plaything, the girl in question is incarcerated in an asylum rather than the priest being investigated.

Performances in the film are powerful, emotionally shattering and among the best this critic has seen in years. Geraldine McEwan plays the closeted and borderline psychotic Sister Bridget in a portrayal that should, by rights, be up for all the awards going. She is balanced by three epic performances from Duff, Noone and Duffy as the three victims, though it is perhaps Noone, just 17 and an amateur when the film was shot, who makes the best impression as the rebellious and feisty Bernadette.

This is harrowing stuff, and all the more awful for being based on an equally hard-hitting documentary, Channel 4’s Love in a Cold Climate. The regime it presents is straight out of the Dark Ages, but while the film can be accused of overt Catholic-bashing it wears its heart (and its evidence) on its sleeve, ably illustrating an austere, callous and cruel regime that one could barely imagine existing outside of Nazi Germany or the dictatorships of South America.

With The Magdalene Sisters Mullan refuses to pull any punches. This is nasty, pitiful, heart-rending and frightening. And it only came to an end in 1996.

A brilliant, unforgettable tour-de-force. Will Mullan ever be able to top it?

Star rating: *****

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