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United Kingdom 2002
Directed by
Peter Mullan
119 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Ruth Williams
3.5 stars

The Magdalene Sisters

Synopsis: Based on a true story, the film follows the lives of Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Rose (Dorothy Duffy) and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) over a period of four years. The girls find themselves in the care of the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns who run the Magdalene homes for wayward young women. It’s 1964, and while the rest of the Western world is waking up to peace, love and equality for women, an alternate world exists within the walls of this convent where freedom is a dream and individuality is harshly punished.

The first thing a prospective audience might be exposed to before they see The Magdalene Sisters is the publicity brochure which shows a close-up photo of a girl biting her fingernail in a very seductive way. She looks like she is inviting you inside "for a good time". Even the title might have you thinking that this could be a film about girls having fun. And isn’t film all about peeking through the keyhole into the secret lives of others? I knew nothing more than what I have described to you here before entering the cinema. What surprised me, were the other members of the audience that entered the cinema after me. There seemed to be a larger than usual quota of women in the fifty plus age group. Funny. Maybe I underestimated the tastes of older women.

It wasn’t long before I had a few more theories of my own. Judging by their ages, they would have been about the same age as the women in the film back in the early '60s. Maybe they had experienced similar mistreatment at the hands of the Australian equivalent of the Sisters of Mercy.

This is a sad film, or should I say more precisely, a horrifying one, a case of man’s inhumanity to man, except in this case it’s woman’s inhumanity to woman. This is the type of film about which you will hear people say, "it had to be made, so things like this don’t happen again". There is a misguided premise on which the nuns base their behaviour: that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and the only way she could redeem herself was to engage in back breaking work that would distract her from her sinful ways. Or words to that effect. It reminds us that people will use whatever suits them to rationalise their behaviour.

It brought to mind the stories of the stolen children, stories that aren’t always pleasant to hear, but nonetheless important to be told. To see a film that is pretty much a savage indictment of a group of people that were meant to be offering salvation for these young girls (30,000 over the period these institutions survived) is never going to be happy viewing. I suppose I was hoping for some light at the end of the tunnel. Not because I think that life is like that. It’s more that too often, life isn’t like that, and to see a film that reinforces this, had me thinking, next time, maybe I should find out what the film is about before I buy the ticket.




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