Art As Issue: On Peter Mullen’s “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002)

A shot from Peter Mullen's "The Magdalene Sisters", depicting a young man and woman flirting.

I sometimes wonder how my life would’ve been if I’d been born 50 or 100 years before. Typically, these ponderings are answered by the sense of having made a narrow escape. Learning that the last of the Magdalene laundries was shut down just the year before I was born is almost surreal, having grown up in an Ireland experiencing its first flushes of wealth and donning a newfound secularism. The abuses of the church were becoming something to be taken for granted, rather than being trapped in whispers. Yet, the truth that Peter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters depicts is that mental freedom is much harder come by than the physical kind. I’ve heard the quiver that lingers in so many older people’s voices when they speak of the nuns that tormented them back in primary school—70 years on. The suspicions that they lacked the language to express, back then, about the parish priest’s strange behaviour.

Of course, most of these people remain devout Catholics. The label of “anti-Catholic” is typically tossed out as a lazy attempt to refute those who are frank about the abuses the Church allowed and facilitated. The Magdalene Sisters predictably got this same tarring, yet there is no condemnation of any religious doctrine here. In fact, it’s pointed out that many of the women retained their faith, as their real-life counterparts overwhelmingly did. The abuses depicted here are not solely the domain of those in habit and cassock, but are recognisable wherever complacency and fear allow cruelty to fester.

The gist of the events depicted in The Magdalene Sisters was based on testimonies given by survivors of the Magdalene laundries. For those readers unfamiliar with these institutions, they were run by the Catholic Church in Ireland as a way to house “fallen women” (ostensibly sex workers, but a much broader category in practice). Said women were made into a source of free labour as washerwomen. While some stated that their experiences had not been so abusive as the film depicts, others believed the film had in fact toned down the reality (this should not shadow the veracity of either of these claims—there were many such convents across the country, and it’s plausible that they would vary depending on their leadership). Either way, Peter Mullen’s film strikes the viewer as believable within its fictive confines, and despite the horrors depicted, and the concept of perverse nuns being a salacious pop-culture stereotype, never sinks into melodrama. The acting is generally excellent, and the script is tight, well-paced, and never forces emotion. It is studded with moments of psychological depth that elevate this film beyond mere misery-porn or agitprop.

Set in the 1960s, the opening scenes economically sketch the 3 main characters and their predicaments: Margaret (raped at a family wedding by her cousin), Rose (a young unmarried mother who is forced to give up her son for adoption), and Bernadette (condemned by the nuns who run her orphanage for attracting too much attention from boys). They are all sent to a Magdalene laundry in Dublin to serve penance for their “sins”, and the narrative lays out a tableau of the indignities their next few years comprise of.

The convent/laundry is run by Sister Bridget, in a standout performance from Geraldine McEwan. She exudes cold-eyed malice, alternately muttering soft mockeries and administering beatings to the “fallen women” she tyrannises. And if there’s any doubt as to the realism of such a figure, all I can say is that the sadism she embodies is totally consonant with stories I’ve heard of the emotional and physical abuses meted out by certain nuns within the school system at the time this film is set. Early on, we hear her pontificating to the young women who have been condemned to her charge: “….in our laundries, they are not only clothes and bedlinen. These are the earthly means to cleanse your very soul”, which is undercut by shots of the exhausting labour the women carry out. A quick glimpse of the good Sister riffling through a stack of cash provides a dark punchline of sorts.

The Magdalene Sisters plays out as a kind of study in how the soul can be warped under pressure. Some, like Rose, are stripped of their names. They are humiliated by being forced to stand naked and having their bodies mocked by nuns. Punishments for infractions are brutal. Within the cold, sterile atmosphere of the convent walls, the captive women react in varying ways. One girl who attempts to escape is violently punished, and later chooses to join the convent herself. Another older woman, Kate, who has been in the Laundry for decades, has coped with this life by falling into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the nuns. She is in her 60s, yet has the stunted affect of a childish teacher’s pet. Ironically, Bernadette, who in fact had no actual experience with boys prior to entering the laundries, kisses the delivery driver’s young assistant and allows him to look up her skirt in order to entice him to help her escape (the plan fails).

Young women employed as washers in Peter Mullen's "The Magdalene Sisters".

Meanwhile, Crispina, who clearly has some sort of intellectual disability, barely understands what she is being punished for—just that she is “bad”. When Margaret witnesses the local priest orally raping Crispina, she takes revenge by sneaking nettles into the washing machine along with his underclothes. There’s an unexpected moment of hilarity where the priest interrupts Mass to strip off his vestments and run around in agony, violently itching. Yet the humour is interrupted when Crispina also starts to complain to the nuns of painful itching around her crotch, and some dim understanding of the wrong she has endured dawns on her. She begins to shout at the priest, repeating “you are not a man of God” countless times, and the camera lingers well past the point where one would expect the scene to end. And there is something utterly apt about this ungainly, overlong scene: no catharsis is to be found here. (For her outburst, the nuns have Crispina carted off to a mental asylum.)

In general, the laundries seem like a kind of repository for all that people don’t want to confront. And a subtle but constantly present theme in the film is that it’s this kind of ignorance that allows them to flourish. It’s easier for people to believe that the women (often, mere girls) here are “hookers and whores”, as one delivery driver states, and that the Church is doing them a kindness by giving them a place in the world. And it’s not as if the outside world lacks its own cruelties, as most of the women know well. One of the film’s memorable scenes occurs when Margaret finds a hidden gate that has been left unlocked. The prospect of escape unfurls before her—for a moment. But when she flags down a passing car, and the driver asks her what she wants, she freezes at the sight of a strange man. You are reminded of why, exactly, she was forced into the laundry. The man drives off and she re-enters the gate. Nothing has happened.

It’s Margaret whose bodily escape comes easiest of the three central characters, as her younger brother comes to rescue her with a letter from the parish priest. Yet, as hinted in the aforementioned scene, the ordeals she has suffered appear to have trapped her mind more tightly. When her brother grabs Margaret’s hand to lead her away, she is almost reluctant to follow him for a moment, glancing fearfully at Sr Bridget. She then lashes out at her brother, demanding to know where he’s been for the last 4 years. Yet, as embittered and traumatised as she may be, she’s capable of a steeliness, as her final act in the convent is embarrassing Sr Bridget by forcing her to walk around her on her way out.

Of the main girls, Bernadette is given possibly the most nuanced characterisation. She has a resourcefulness, a tenacity, that collapses into callousness as the years go by, for all that it also gives her the strength to plot escape. There is a vignette in which she steals Crispina’s Holy Medal (which the woman believes allows her to communicate with her son outside the walls), and when she’s asked “why?” answers that it’s because Crispina doesn’t suffer the way the rest of them do (being unable to understand the reality of their situation). Later, she is forced to nurse Kate as she is dying, and contemptuously retorts to the older woman’s ramblings. Yet when she does finally die, Bernadette kisses her on the forehead in a moment of genuine compassion.

In the end, Bernadette and Rose finally resolve to escape, knowing that they, as most of the women, have no sympathetic sibling to save them. They must be their own rescuers. After almost being caught by Sr Bridget, they manage to get out and find refuge with a hairdresser cousin of Bernadette’s. The film ends with Rose after emigrating to England, as Bernadette remains in Dublin. We see her walking through the city in her new fashionable clothes, looking utterly removed from the captive in brown sackcloth. Yet the terror spilling from her eyes as she passes two nuns on the street is palpable. This is what she’s left with.

Really, if there’s hope in this film, it trickles in through the brief shot of the priest blessing the Laundry’s newly acquired washing machine (such technology being the eventual downfall of the laundries as a financially viable enterprise). Is it comforting to know that (at least sometimes) economic pressure will force progress even when ethics lag behind? Maybe a little bit. Comfort is really beside the point though. The Magdalene Sisters is just an exemplar of how to make excellent art that focuses on a political or social “issue”, and that’s enough for me, gratefully settled in the 21st Century.

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More from Laura Woods: Myth in Motion: Review of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), Imagined Shores: on Frank Capra and Akira KurosawaWhat Comes After: Reviewing Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Way Back”