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The Magdalene Sisters
Dir. Peter Mullan, UK/Ireland, Miramax
In a field where a masterpiece like demonlover represents a huge risk for even the bravest distributor while Peter Mullan’s well-meaning, but ultimately useless second feature The Magdalene Sisters is a sure-thing, something’s gotta give. Though The Magdalene Sisters doesn’t represent everything that’s wrong with the avenue of filmmaking it navigates, its unfortunate timing only serves to highlight the inherent, uncomfortable flaw on which the whole enterprise is founded. Competently made, if somewhat histrionic, it remains firmly locked into the this/that/then mode of polemical discourse—this (usually “bad”) thing, that happened then, without ever imagining how the enraging injustice it documents could be transformed into some sort of present-day relevance. Instead, it allows viewers their obligatory 100 minutes of social-conscience penitence, and, by very carefully bracketing itself as a historical document (though the film’s press notes make it seem questionable that the specific characters depicted really existed at all), allows them to chuck their sense of indignity along with their concessions in the trash cans located near exits on either side of the auditorium.
Mullan begins his investigation by charting the supposed “crimes” which led to his three protagonists’ incarceration in a Dublin outpost of the Magdalene Asylum system in 1964. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped at a family wedding and the subsequent revelation of the crime is played out in a terrific sequence that raises the bar much too high for a film of such ultimately meager intentions. His camera skillfully follows the information as it moves quickly to the top (the priest of course), only turning back to Margaret when the others cast embarrassed glances at her. What’s remarkable is that Mullan drowns all of this dialogue in a spare Irish folk song (just voice and drum) peformed at the wedding and smartly intercut with the events leading up to and following the rape. The whole sequence elegantly captures Margaret’s complete loss of agency at the hands of Church-dominated patriarchy, and it’s a pity that Mullan follows it up with the less compellingly framed scenarios surrounding bad-girl Bernadette (newcomer Nora-Jane Noone whose coy finger-bite prominently placed on the film’s poster seems to undermine the film’s protestations of her innocence) and unmarried new mother Rose (Dorothy Duffy, also in her first screen appearance) whose baby is taken away.
Needless to say, the three are quickly locked away and set to work in the asylum’s laundromat facilities, under the watchful eye of cold, squinty Sister Bridget, played by Geraldine McEwan with a one-dimensionality so intense that its almost admirable. What follows is a virtual catalogue of girl-prison injustices that might have been ripped directly from Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat, only without the Seventies girl-power vibe that made the predecessor redeemable. Mullan manages to studiously avoid straying down any avenues that might have opened the film up to larger questioning of the Catholic Church as institution—he testifies to not wanting to make an “anti-Catholic film,” which is fine, but the film’s suffocating insularity belies the organized systems and culture of repression that allowed the Magdalene asylums to exist and flourish in the first place. He prefers instead to proceed in an anecdotal fashion, layering one shock or indignity on top of another, mixing the not-so-bad times with the really bad, occasional laughs with the tears, all leading up to a stunningly unremarkable conclusion (if you’re expecting a prison-break Caged Heat style, think again). Meanwhile, Sister Bridget’s been quietly hoarding cash from their labors on the periphery. Where the money goes, we’ll never know, and Mullan seems oddly not to care.
Herein lies the fundamental problem with a film of this ilk—if its not going to make a case for documenting a historical injustice beyond “this was bad,” then all we’re left with is wasted celluloid. When the film premiered in Venice in 2002, the Vatican was quick to issue its usual stern denunciation—a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction to a thoughtless knee-jerk auto-critique. Attacking the obvious foe is the easy response; it’s much harder to take on, say, a Phillip Pullman whose His Dark Materials trilogy uses an abstracted, fantastical setting to build a critique of the very foundations of Catholic belief leading to the eventual destruction of God himself and re-figuration of the universe based on a spirituality more bound to physics and nature than mythology. This series of novels (for children no less) flies easily under the radar, while Mullan gets the red flag. Perhaps the Pope was reacting to Mullan’s one-two sucker-punch at the end of the film—the revelation of a drooling, wall-hugging, insane Crispina (Eileen Walsh), another inmate who psychological makeup couldn’t withstand the abuse, followed by a title card announcing that the last Magdalene Asylum was closed in 1996. It’s the closest Mullan comes to making his case, and it would have been an opportune time to make it. He could have taken a page from Black Hawk Down, in which Ridley Scott uses a similar coda to deck the heroism his film seems to validate right in its square jaw by putting the loss of life in perspective: under 20 Americans killed in the operation as opposed to over 1,000 Somalis. It’s a radical revelation that almost succeeds in re-casting the whole project. Now that’s entertainment. —Jeff Reichert