The Magdalene Sisters, based on the true story of Ireland's Magdalene Asylums, is a horrifying indictment of what the Catholic Church did to innocent young women who were accused of "moral crimes" against society during the twentieth century. Parents would abandon their unwed daughters, or girls who might appear "too promiscuous," to live and work as slaves in the asylum laundry. After all, they had to atone for their sexual sins, and the nuns made sure they did that, not only with beatings, but mental and sexual abuse (by the priests).
The story had previously been the subject of an award-winning play (Patricia Burke Brogan's Eclipsed) as well as Joni Mitchell's song "The Magdalene Laundries" and a British documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate. But when director/writer Peter Mullan, who was raised as a Catholic in Scotland, heard about the story, he felt there was a powerful message about what can happen when major institutions encroach on the freedoms of an entire gender because of a fear of sexuality.
"I had heard about it for years," Mullan said in an interview, "and I remained stunned that after all this time these women still had no closure, no happy ending, no justice or recognition."
The Magdalene Sisters follows the lives of three young women incarcerated in a Dublin asylum. While all the incidents are true -- the characters are fictional. Raped at a family wedding, Margaret accused her attacker only to have him make her out as the aggressor. A wounded spirit who will fight to the end for her cause, Margaret is well played by Anne-Marie Duff, who was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Rose (Dorothy Duffy) comes to the home after birthing an illegitimate child she's forced to give up for adoption. Raised in a religious Irish Catholic family, Duffy brought a special intensity to this important role and filled Mullan's vision of the character.
The orphan Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is banished to the asylum simply because the boys like her too much. Another woman of great fortitude, Noone takes her character through many changes. Noone's father, who was a van boy for St. Michael's Magdalene Home in Galway as a young man, was a great help in giving the young actress source material to draw upon for her role.
Geraldine McEwan effectively plays the bullish Sister Bridget, a nun with a deep hatred of feminine sexuality. Phyllis McMahon, who portrays Sister Augusta, formerly served as a nun in a Magdalene Asylum. McMahon left the order in 1962 and became a waitress and then an actress. Mullan said she was an important advisor on the set. "I asked her what went wrong in the asylums, and how did it happen that the nuns did these things?" said Mullan. "And she answered, 'Absence of doubt. We had no doubts about what we did.'"
If Mullan was impassioned about his film before its release, a Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival gave him another reason to push the film toward a wider audience. "When I first learned of the Magdalene Asylums, it was the opposite of everything I was raised to believe about religion," said Mullan. "Yet, what happened in Ireland is echoed around the world, even today, anywhere that women are regarded as somehow naturally weak and prone to evil."
The last Magdalene Asylum closed in 1996, and though the film's depiction of the asylums appears extreme, some survivors say the full reality could never be simulated. Upon viewing Mullan's film, survivor Mary-Jo McDonagh, who was interred at the Magdalene laundry in Galway, stated: "It was worse, much worse than what you see. I don't like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns."
When he began researching his material, Mullan was surprised that the Catholic Church could still have such a hold on the freedom of information about the asylums. He called several Irish newspapers to place an ad looking for survivors. "I was told it would not be printed as it was too controversial," said Mullan. "They said they were not allowed to print anything that contained the words, "survivor" or the "Magdalene Asylums," and this was 2001. I was very shocked. This confirms that although the church is no where near as powerful as it once was, it still has influence in high places."
After the film opened in Venice, Mullan received an astonishing surprise from the Catholic Church. "The Vatican newspaper said I was a liar and made it all up," said Mullan. "When the film opened in Ireland, the silence was deafening, but by the time it opened in England, a spokesman for the Catholic Church broke ranks with the Vatican and took out a half page ad recommending that everyone see it."
It is estimated more than 30,000 women passed through the asylums, with some spending their entire adult lives interred. Survivors report they lived as if in prisons, with nuns serving as their wardens and punishers. Shielded by a strict code of silence, those abandoned to the asylums were isolated, in many cases abused and forced to toil 364 days a year unpaid in sweatshop-like conditions. The asylums became a medieval nightmare in modern times -- built on a foundation of sexual fear and stigma. Mullan interviewed more than 100 of the survivors for his film.
"Of course, a lot of them are elderly, and I found many who are more damaged than others by their experience. They can't move on, and this is heartbreaking. And what about the babies that were born to these women? There's a host of questions that the church still refuses to give any information about."
Mullan identified so greatly with the pain of this story, he had a personal reaction while filming one scene. "The scene in the laundry where the girls must strip their clothes off and be mocked, was difficult," he said. "The girls used all sorts of antics to make everyone laugh when the cameras were off, and I tried to shoot quickly, but it was still hard for them to expose that raw emotion these women must have gone through. The actresses showed guts, but they were just pretending. Imagine how bad it was for the women who really had to do this."
(Released by Miramax Films and rated "R" for violence/cruelty, nudity, sexual content and language.)