Here’s a movie for people who thought Mystic River was too cheerful.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair, since Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters does crack the occasional smile (if a crooked one), and does offer the viewer at least a few moments of personal satisfaction within its grim confines. (And classic-movie fans are excused a mild chuckle when one of the characters bears the same name as a famous character actress, Una O’Connor.)
At the same time, its grimness is a lot stronger and harsher than anything in Mystic River. I have not heard of people walking out on Mystic River, but was told that such had definitely happened at the Fine Arts during some of the Friday screenings. Watching this story — concerning the fates of four young women who are locked away on vaguely defined moral charges and forced to work in laundries run by the Order of the Magdalene Sisters — I had no trouble believing that, especially during an extended close up of a looming nun browbeating one of the girls, an image reflected in the pupil of an eye clotted with blood from a brutal punishment haircut. It’s certainly a strong visual. In fact, it’s a deeply disturbing one — and one that’s a good guide to both the strengths and weaknesses of the film.
Historically, the Magdalene Laundries did exist in Ireland from the 1960s till 1996, and, yes, “wayward” young women were incarcerated in these for-profit establishments, stripped of their civil rights, and forced into hard, unpaid labor. That much is recorded fact. But I have reservations about what Mullan’s done with that fact.
This loud, long, overheated wail of a movie comes off too close to a sexualized Dickensian rant to ever rise beyond the level of obvious propaganda. Oh, it’s powerful. It does what it sets out to do — outrage the viewer. But afterwards, you’re apt to be left with gnawing doubt about where to focus that rage: The movie plays out too much like a “caged women” exploitation picture. And, like those pictures, it trades very heavily on stock figures — in this case, they’re dressed in nuns’ and priests’ clothing. It’s full of villainous wardens, lecherous wardens, even a stool-pigeon. And the girls themselves can easily be pigeonholed into traditional prison-picture characters.
Like the sort of movie it follows, it’s also not overly concerned with logic — and that’s especially harmful here, where the raison d’etre isn’t supposed to be titillation, but moral reform.
The Magdalene Sisters leaves too many questions unanswered. It’s never clear how much — if indeed any — of what was going on in these “asylums” was known to the Church. Mullan appears to want us to assume the Church was directly responsible — not just an unconscious accomplice — but he never makes this clear. Similarly, there’s the unanswered question of just where the proceeds of these laundries were going. We see the money being greedily counted and squirreled away (a favorite image that crops up repeatedly), but to what end, exactly? We never learn.
We also never learn what reforms brought about the abolition of the laundries, or about the laws that allowed them to exist unchecked in the first place. This is the sort of thing that might not matter in an exploitation picture, but it’s a pretty significant gap in a serious drama about social reform.
Other aspects of the movie are simply inexplicably sloppy, including an entire scene built around the lost key to the safe. The presence of the key is called back into play during the film’s climactic encounter, only to be completely dropped from the plot in the same scene! It makes no sense — and leads nowhere.
Unfortunately, all of this serves to undermine the movie’s moments of genuine power, flashes of ironic inspiration (the film of choice shown at the asylum’s Christmas party is Leo McCarey’s valentine to Catholicism, The Bells of St. Mary’s), and important theme. This should have been a powerful statement about the perils of the lack of separation between church and state — about the abuses of religion that become possible with no civil safeguards in place. But Mullan, blinded by passion, is too interested in working the viewer into a frenzy of righteous indignation to do more than hint at that. Too bad.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke