The Magdalene Sisters
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in Three Categories!
Director: Peter Mullan. Cast: Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Geraldine McEwan, Britta Smith, Daniel Costello, Mary Murray, Frances Healy, Eithne McGuinness, Phyllis MacMahon, Peter Mullan, Eamonn Owens. Screenplay: Peter Mullan.

The distinguishing mark of a genuine ethical outrage, a truly gross perversion of justice, is that it almost defies representation. People, to include artists, canít really do anything in the face of such transgressions; the echoes and aftershocks of suffering can overwhelm almost any aesthetic response, calling its own ethics and intentions into question, and straitjacketing the audience into a narrow and uniformly uncomfortable range of positions. Here, for example, are some of the troubling states of mind among which a viewer may pass and re-pass while watching Peter Mullanís film The Magdalene Sisters, a scalding, semi-fictionalized account of the prolonged and systematic abuse of Irish women and girls housed in Catholic work-convents in the middle of the 20th century:
Mullanís film not only generates these kinds of responses, it all but shoves us into them, in all their ethical variety, relentless pathos, and difficult paradox. For a film explicitly invested in exposing the truth, The Magdalene Sisters sure raises a lot of questions and blurs a lot of lines. The narrative of this historical docudrama ends with one of those post-script montages that ornaments a freeze-frame close-up of each protagonist with a small caption describing what was apparently her ďrealĒ future. However, the film itself ends, at the conclusion of its rolling credits, with the familiar legal disclaimer about what we have just seen being a work of fiction, of which any passing resemblance to real persons or events must be pure coincidence. Writer-director Mullan and his big bossmen at Miramax no doubt want (respectively) to raise eyebrows and sell tickets with the searing, sordid truth; the suits at Disney, Miramaxís parent company, no doubt want to avoid being sued. Thus are the double-binds of bravery and conservatism, rebellion and obedience, fidelity and compromise which any film like The Magdalene Sisters is forced to inhabit, even as it calls attention to them, often in the most condemnatory fashion.

As a rule, The Magdalene Sisters is savvy and energetic enough to weave some of these inevitable tensions and ambivalences into the fabric of the film. The sequence that opens the picture, an almost wordless passage in which Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a wedding reception, is for this reason not just one of the film's most daring formal gambits but one of its most thematically resonant. Margaret follows her assailant out of the room where he has attacked her. In the background of a medium shot, she desperately informs a female friend about what has just happened to her, leading to a revolving series of impromptu summits, glimpsed but unheard: Margaret's friend and Margaret's father, the father and the priest, the father and the rapist, etc. These impassioned negotiations—impassioned in what direction, and on whose behalf, we can't quite tell—are cross-cut with Margaret's own desperate stillness in her corner of the room, as shut out as we are from the conversations that are doubtless determining her fate. The whole scene vibrates with two depressing certainties: first, that Margaret's status as a helpless, shut-out bystander forecasts our own position for the next two hours; second, and worse, that even the most deeply implicated spectator is incapable of intervening or assisting in the awful scenes playing out before them.

Margaret will swiftly be sent to (I almost wrote incarcerated within) the convent of the Magdalene nuns as a punishment for no other crime than not being able to prevent her own victimization. The briefer interludes that introduce us to the other focal characters—Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), who is committed for flirting with the boys in her orphanage, and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who has born a son out of wedlock—are less formally distinguished but just as embroiled in cruel logics of cynical hypocrisy and tortured spectatorship. The boys whom Bernadette is alleged to be seducing are divided from her by the iron fences of the orphanage yard. Rose is forced to watch from down a hospital corridor while her baby is impounded by an adoption agency, at the dourly silent insistence of her parents. Later, when one of the inmates at the Magdalene convent is brutally punished for attempting to flee, Mullan registers both her physical trauma and her internal anguish with an enormous close-up of the girl's eye, its bruised lid hanging heavily, blood coating the lashes more thickly than any mascara.

I think that Mullan, whose own work as an actor is trademarked by wolverine intensity and physicality (as in Mike Figgis' Miss Julie, Michael Winterbottom's The Claim, and a brief cameo here), would like as nearly as possible for his film to accost our eyes just this way. The ferocity of the film's convictions as both artwork and exposé is unmistakable—indeed, it is the film's signature achievement, acquitting some shortcomings in craft with a surfeit of blazing sincerity. The cinematography of Nigel Willoughby, dangerously underlit in some early scenes, finally stabilizes in a sallow palette that quietly underlines the girls' physical and spiritual depletion. Few of the performances range outside whatever limited range each actor establishes in her first scene or two, a pattern so pervasive that we eventually trace it to Mullan's inflamed literalism as a screenwriter and director. He lets Noone's spitfire insolence slide a little too far into opaque disdain, and he doesn't help Duffy's deliberately wan Rose from getting lost in some of her own key scenes. Then again, the film can boast at least two feats of bold actorly interpretation. Geraldine McEwan, a British actress who does dotty and delightful with the best of them (viz. her role in Love's Labour's Lost), manages to find the sadistic audacity of the Magdalene mother superior somewhere inside her helium voice and enormous eyes. And Eileen Walsh as Crispina, the toothy, naïve girl who slings the most wildly between inexplicable optimism and depthless misery, survives all of the script's demands with a tricky talent that blows the entire cast of Girl, Interrupted right out of the water.

So, yes, The Magdalene Sisters rankles and infuriates its audience, it scores strongly if unevenly with its central characterizations, and it ably evokes the historical milieu of the 1960s without disconnecting its scenario from very contemporary anxieties and problems. Sounds like an across-the-board winner, and in a movie year this dismal, it certainly seems close enough. But something weighs on my enthusiasm, something which would easily count as a credit to many pictures.

There's a theatrical acumen to The Magdalene Sisters, a shrewd sense of when the audience will crave a moment of tonal relief or a climax of action, that threatens at a few key moments to render the movie too canny, too pre-fab for its own good. Around two-thirds of the way into the picture, Mullan breaches two boundaries that the preceding scenes have uniformly honored. Margaret observes yet another moral treachery in a secret corner of the building complex, but this time, rather than simply suffer her terrible knowledge, she elects to do something about it. The payoff of her whipsmart revenge plot even allows us to chuckle a little, as her deserving target is intimately shamed before a public audience that doesn't immediately know what's happening. Some of their puzzled reaction shots betray the film's own glee at seeing justice served, however briefly and inadequately. But, frankly, Mullan pushes too hard to give us what he thinks we want: the narrative logic of the scene increasingly leans far too hard on coincidental timing, and both the extent of the character's embarrassment and the stillness of onlookers we expect to be roused are drawn beyond the limit of believability. At breakneck pace, the movie recovers from this tonal lapse with one of its most arresting moments, as a frayed character shouts an impromptu mantra so loudly and successively that it breaks every possible resistance in the film's audience. Not since Jennifer Jason Leigh wailed her way through that nine-minute "Take Me Back" in Georgia has a scene marshaled so much force out of simple repetition.

Still, even if Mullan saves the sequence, it is he who allows the movie to need such saving. The Magdalene Sisters reaches a similar breaking point at least two more times. Once, as the assembled girls are forced into a grotesque beauty pageant in the communal shower, the film's impulse to horrify carries it too near to the luridly sensational. Should Mullan need to parade the shivering nudity of his actresses in order to register the humiliation of their characters? It's quite a risk for a screenplay to let its villains plumb the absolute depths of exploitation, by surveying their naked charges to see who among them has the most pubic hair; it's a mistake, I think, to show us the vaginas being assessed, and thus to veer so closely to the very same exploitation. Later, the inevitable showdown with Geraldine McEwan's dragon lady seems clumsily choreographed and aimed too obviously at the viewer's projected appetite to see this diabolical figure menaced in turn. Compared to say, 28 Days Later, The Magdalene Sisters is a little mum on the possibility that barbarous treatment generates more barbarity. Mullan draws the lines rather crudely between Victim and Oppressor, which only misserves the picture when that opposition is staged too melodramatically.

Still, even when The Magdalene Sisters blunders in its stagings or crosses a line of good taste, the sin—if we can even tolerate a Catholic vocabulary—is ventured in the name of a greater good. The movie's primary agenda as a whistle-blower against hushed-up crimes simply cannot be ignored. Yes, certain scenes are clearly jerry-rigged for dramatic effect, and yes, the sincerity of the film's intentions does not always translate into a perfectly orchestrated execution. But the brute power of The Magdalene Sisters' scenario not only compensates for these slips, it almost draws force from them. Because if the film must avoid melodrama at all costs, it must work even harder to prevent anyone's seeing it as an anachronism, a profile of historical misdeeds that have long since faded for many people—but are cauterized in the consciousness of several others, though these memory-carriers are often hushed or disbelieved. Drama is forever the enemy of pure truth, but it is also the peerless ally of emotional testimony and transhistorical accessibility. The cast and crew of The Magdalene Sisters want to tell this story so badly that they trip sometimes in the race to startle our senses, to open our hearts. It is the willfulness and the earnestness of the filmmakers that ignites us as much as the images they have created. At a time when most movies could just as easily exist as not, it is a thrill to see a film that begs to be seen, works to deserve our time, and reminds us of the necessity of witnessing, protesting, and waking up to other people's pain. B+

Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion (Best Picture)
Toronto International Film Festival: Discovery Award
National Board of Review: Freedom of Expression Award

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