Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters is a scathing indictment of the sins of the Sisters of Magdalene Order, and by extension, all unholy acts ever committed in the name of religion. In one of the film's most spine-tingling scenes, one of the girls wrongly committed to a Magdalene Order laundry finally lashes back at an abusive priest, with shrieking choruses of "You are not a man of God!" Some might see Mullan's film as beating the Catholic Church while it's down, but the unsung ballad of the Magdalene sisterhood--the callous nuns, yes, but more so the girls and women under their pitiless rule--is a woeful history which demands to be told.
Mullan grips us immediately with crisp montages introducing the principal characters, each representing a number of the real Magdalene women who Mullan interviewed for his screenplay. In the first scene, the shy Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped at a family function; the following virtuosic sequence depicts the passed whispers of Margaret's shame, drowned out by rollicking wedding music. Margaret's attacker walks away with impunity, and Margaret is sent to a Magdalene home. In turn, flirtateous orphan Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) and single mother Rose (Dorothy Duffy) are branded for their degrees of sexual liberation; neither Bernadette's minute "infractions" nor Rose's awkward situation call for the Church's unsympathetic program of penance. Young girl after young girl was railroaded by loved ones into a misguided life of indentured servitude, but their plight is so respectfully rendered and affectingly acted by the potent ensemble that the film climbs above its inherent dourness.
In a single, extended shot, without fanfare, Mullan juxtaposes the young heroines to their aged counterparts--their potential futures--as two single file lines pass in opposite directions. As the girls toil by day and despair by night, each runs an emotional gamut. Bernadette, for example, hardens her heart and berates her peers with lacerating cynicism. Traumatic encounters with their cruel wardens press the point: the girls will either shrink like their deluded elders (who heartbreakingly come to rely upon a stream of dogma and procedure) or find untapped reserves of strength to strike out on their own. The passing priests and ever-present nuns take sadistic pleasure in their self-serving dominance, epitomized by Geraldine McEwan's cutting work as Sister Bridget.
Mullan's vituperative and palpably angry film is skillfully didactic, but is it fair? In 1964 Ireland, where the film is set, an ascetic doctrine of salvation through deprivation and even pain was considered commonplace by most. Surely, though, nothing can excuse the sexual and emotional abuses perpetrated on these young women, which shame the Christian treatment of the Magdalene Order's namesake. Furthermore, as the film so shockingly points out, the congenitally flawed laundries continued to operate until very recently, long after the Church's Vatican II restructuring. In the name of God, the nuns and priests who oversaw the profitable Magdalene laundries financially benefited from the driving, debasing treatment of an estimated 30,000 innocent young women over four decades. Righteous indignation hardly seems out of place; in fact, it seems as vital as this empathetic and finely wrought film.