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With: Anne-Marie Duff, Dorothy Duffy, Nora-Jane Noone, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Eithne McGuinness, Julie Austin, Eamonn Owens
Written by: Peter Mullan
Directed by: Peter Mullan
MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, nudity, sexual content and language
Running Time: 119
Date: 08/30/2002

The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Sister' Act

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Magdalene Sisters hurts. It feels like a stinging slap in the face in the bitter cold. It's a tough, nasty, superb little movie.

But it's nothing compared to the real behind-the-scenes anguish. In the 1960s, Irish-Catholic girls who had committed mortal sins, such as getting pregnant out of wedlock -- or even "tempting" boys into lustful acts -- were fit for severe punishment. These girls were sent to the Magdalene Asylums, where they would work off their sins in laundries under the sinister gaze of watchful nuns.

Actor Peter Mullan, best known for his great performance in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, turned director in 1997 with Orphans (released here in 2000). The Magdalene Sisters is only his second feature, but it reveals a huge talent.

Consider the opening scene in which Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is lured upstairs by a cousin during a family wedding. He tries to force himself on her. She refuses, but he persists. Mullan does not show what happens. Instead, he shows images of the wedding in progress: men sweating and singing, a little boy poking his fingers in his ears to drown out the noise. Margaret comes downstairs in tears and mouths something to someone; again, we can't hear anything above the din. Word spreads around, and the hurt on the women's faces slowly turns to scorn on the men's faces. The next day, Margaret is shipped off.

Another girl, Rose (Dorothy Duffy), has just given birth to an illegitimate child before she is sent off. A third girl, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is sent off simply because she's pretty and constantly attracts the attentions of the opposite sex. (The Catholics hope to prevent future "crimes," you see.)

Once at the asylum, the girls come under the vicious humiliation of Sister Bridget, played in a brilliant bit of casting by Geraldine McEwan, the sweet, cheeky woman from Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Peter Chan's The Love Letter. McEwan makes the most of the role, enjoying her power and counting her money like Cruella de Ville working in the name of God.

In a more obvious film, the three girls would bond and form a friendship despite their hardships, but Mullan will not let them or us off the hook that easily. His camera wanders over to a fourth girl, the horse-faced, slightly slow Crispina (Eileen Walsh), who has also had a baby out of wedlock, and whose story is the toughest of all. Crispina wears a pendant that "connects" her with her little boy, and it seems to be the only thing keeping her from complete madness.

The film continues to test us in subtle ways. In the breakfast hall, the girls eat a vomit-inducing gruel while the nuns dine on sausages, bread and jam. Later, Sister Bridget delights in tormenting Bernadette; Mullan cuts away from the torture and returns with an extreme close-up of her blood-encrusted eyelashes.

Mullan successfully rounds out all the major characters by spending intimate moments with each of them alone. Bernadette comes out the most interesting, a clever girl who adapts to her situation, and, like a prisoner, learns to twist disadvantages to advantages. She hoards a violent rage beneath her beautiful features -- enormous eyes and seductive lips.

At one point the nuns charge her with the care of a dying older inmate, and Bernadette shows all the bedside manner of a sponge, preferring instead to face death with a sneer. (Incredibly, Noone makes her acting debut with this role.)

Surprisingly, Mullan allows a thin veneer of hope to seep into his angst soup. In one astonishing scene, Margaret sneaks away to steal some poison ivy for some future revenge and discovers the door to the outside unlocked. A million thoughts and emotions race through her head before she decides just how to use this opportunity. Can she even exist in the outside world anymore? What about her sweet revenge? Which is the right thing to do, under the circumstances?

Of course, without actually saying so, Mullan gets us to think about the sins of the Church itself and how the nuns went about casting stones as if they were without sin. These thought patterns are ingrained in everyone, even the girls. At one point, Rose says, "All the mortal sins in the world wouldn't justify this place." They're raised to believe they deserve a certain amount of suffering, but how much?

Best of all, Mullan manages to tell a "true story" without falling into the usual movie "true story" traps, especially the self-congratulations that usually go with such movies. He unfortunately drops the ball at the very end by using the old Animal House "where are they now?" title cards, but such a device is a small quibble. The Magdalene Sisters is one of the year's most powerful films and an absolute must-see.

DVD Details: It's much harder to muster up the courage to watch this powerful film at home, until you remember the film's quiet moments and its small victories -- and that astonishing opening scene, which hasn't left me since I saw the film theatrically last fall. The new DVD comes with a documentary on the real Magdalene Sisters, Sex in a Cold Climate, which, amazingly, is not meant to hype the movie. It's a completely separate bit of reporting. There's also a French-language track and optional French and Spanish subtitles.

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