The Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters

Anger can fuel art. Goya’s series Disasters of War seem to cry out from their prints with the artist’s rage at what Napoleon’s armies have done to Spain. A Christmas Carol may warm our little hearts every Yuletide but somewhere near the core of the book burns Dickens’s hatred of Malthusian economics. And if Bob Dylan always sang “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with devastating composure, you better believe he wasn’t in a detached mood when he wrote it.

But anger can make art sputter, too. Pick up an anthology of anti-Vietnam War poems from the 1960s and you may encounter a fury that sentimentalizes real pain and falsifies the motives of admittedly wrong-headed politicians. Perhaps anger functions as an artistic force only when it leads the creator to stare with fascination into what he hates. The enemy must never be underestimated and the victim never portrayed with mere pity.

What is fascinating about The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s film about the church-sponsored laundries that, for nearly a century, virtually enslaved a large number of Irish girls (some of them unwed mothers, some only high-spirited enough to be curious about boys), is that it is plainly impelled by both compassion for the girls and anger at the Catholic Church (or at least its Irish branch). But it is only the compassion that appears truly deep-seated in Mullan and productive of compelling art.

I had read that the movie was “celluloid incendiarism, rabble-rousing cinema with a delirious, delicious edge of black comedy,” which led me to expect a sort of Hibernian 1984 with Big Sister subbing for Big Brother: satirical jabs at the church plus harrowing stabs at the viewer’s nervous system during scenes of child abuse.

Indeed, the scenes of brutality, though stopping short of gruesomeness, are strong stuff, but the satire turns out to be surprisingly cut-and-dried. When we first encounter the movie’s chief villain, Sister Bridget, we hear her voice expounding hard work as salvation but we see only her fingers counting the money her slaves have made for her. Ah, the old hypocrite, we may think, and I’m afraid the movie never gets beyond this level of evil. Later, the girls are fed gruel in the refectory while the nuns at the head table stuff themselves on choice slices of ham. We might as well be back in Mr. Bumble’s workhouse in Oliver Twist. I half expected one of the girls to approach the head table with empty plate and a plea of “Please, Sister, I want some more.”

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect or desire the abusive nuns to be exculpated or even subtly psychologized. (Psychology can render evil too easy a pardon.) As a child, I suffered at the hands of two nuns who were just as cruel as Sister Bridget (same order, too: the Sisters of Mercy!). But what made these women unforgettably terrifying was their sincerity. Their slaps, sneers, and evenly distributed humiliations were meant not to scrounge money out of their charges but to save their souls. Now the Magdalene nuns certainly did make money out of their inmates but I doubt that much of it went into their personal coffers. Since we get not a glimpse of the ecclesial-economic machinery of which the Magdalene Laundries were a cog, the nuns exist on screen to bear the brunt of the guilt.

Geraldine McEwan, with her greasy contralto cackle, predictably makes a virtuosic meal of Sister Bridget, but an ogre this hissable is, finally, all too dismissable. When, at the movie’s climax, a heroically defiant girl, struggling with the Sister Superior for a key that will make escape possible, snarls, “Give it to me, you twisted bitch,” it’s a cue for the audience to cheer and achieve easy catharsis. But should there be such an easy, melodramatic catharsis? Shouldn’t Sister Bridget have been a larger-than-life compound of holiness and unholiness, twisted indeed but twisted away from an early impulse toward God? At one point, while administering a thrashing, Sister Bridget is interrupted by news of an elderly inmate’s death. “May God have mercy on her soul,” the old tyrant instantly responds, and the lightning transition from sadism to perfunctory piety gets an easy laugh. But suppose McEwan had been directed to make her prayer as sincere as her sadism. It may not have gotten as big a laugh, but the moment would have been infinitely more complex and terrifying. A decade ago, The Boys of St. Vincent, supposedly the last word in anticlerical muckraking, portrayed a Catholic orphanage for boys as a place where some of the clerics on the staff were well-intentioned but stymied by the perverted brother in charge. In The Magdalene Sisters, none of the nuns displays the least humanity. Surprisingly, it is the more temperate Boys that lingers in the mind as the more frightening work of art and the more effective piece of muckraking. To be frightening, it is necessary to be convincing.

Though the director/writer may have sensationalized evil, he hasn’t trivialized suffering. Focusing on four fictional composites of real-life Magdalene cases, Mullan, himself a brilliant actor (My Name Is Joe, Miss Julie), has drawn beautiful performances from Anne-Marie Duff as Margaret, a girl raped and then blamed for being raped; Dorothy Duffy as the unwed mother Rose; Nora-Jane Noone as Bernadette, condemned for being attractive; and, the most memorable performance of all, Eileen Walsh as Chrispina, who takes her character far beyond the simplemindedness indicated in the script, making her the sort of person who would have been regarded as an ecstatic in a better and more truly pious world.

Mullan and his actresses well understood that enforced loneliness is ultimately as devastating as a beating. The unremitting silence in which these girls dwell at mealtimes and at work, a silence unrelieved by opportunities to gossip, to learn, to play, to share feelings with one another, can’t be dignified with the fierce word punishment. It is really an abolition of the soul.

Of the four protagonists, Bernadette provides the most drama because her nature undergoes the greatest change. With her first escape attempt thwarted, Bernadette lets her rebelliousness curdle into self-hatred. The shift happens when her head is shaved as punishment; then she looks into a pocket mirror held by Sister Bridget and sees a bald, bloodied image of herself neatly contained in the palm of her torturer’s hand. A few scenes later, she gazes down on the sleeping Chrispina and is maddened by the goofy grin on the simple girl’s face. She steals Chrispina’s St. Christopher medallion, which plunges its owner into a tizzy. Found out, the thief explains, “’cause she didn’t suffer enough. We’re penitents, right? We’re supposed to suffer.” Perhaps because Bernadette acted out the bitterness corroding her heart, she’s also able to rouse herself to further revolt and make good not only her own escape but that of the milder Rose. Just before the attempt is made, the girls clasp hands, a conventional gesture that the director could have captured in conventional mid-shot, but Mullan has reason for giving us that friendly touch in quick close-up. Simple friendship is the real casualty of the Magdalene Laundry (at least as portrayed on screen) and it is that hand clasp that exalts what can best fight the Magdalene tyranny: the trust born of friendship. end

Published in the 2003-10-10 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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