review contains some spoilers, and if you haven't
the film you may want to proceed with caution.
have to admit that the dreary modern mainstream obsession
with apolitical feel-good cinema has made anything that
kicks against established views feel like a good thing.
And having witnessed all manner of often appalling, self-righteous
action committed in the name of God by everyone from anti-abortionists
to world leaders, a film that sets out to expose a darker side
of religion is particularly welcome, at least in these quarters.
Having dealt first hand with the sort of damage a strict
Catholic upbringing can do (and note I do say can),
I have little sympathy when that same organisation cries
foul, especially when the assault is as justified as it is here.
Mullan always wanted to be a director, but after failing
to get into the National Film School (I've yet to meet anyone
who did, as it happens), he turned his attention to
acting. He found an audience as the easy-going Swanney in Trainspotting,
but it was his ferociously brilliant performance in Ken
Loach's My Name is Joe that really made his reputation.
It was then that he was able to return to the other side
of the camera for his well received first feature, Orphans,
but it was this second feature that really established him as a filmmaker of note.
The film's subject matter made it instantly controversial,
inviting condemnation from various quarters of the Catholic
church, including the Vatican. So what, exactly, had upset
the might of international Catholicism so?
little history. In Catholic Ireland in the 1800s, the Magdalene
Laundries were set up as places to which young girls who were
judged by their families to be sinful – which could mean anything
from bearing children outside marriage to leaving abusive
husbands or even hanging around with the wrong type of
boys – could be sent for moral guidance. In truth the girls
were held as prisoners in primitive conditions and used
as slave labour. Many suffered verbal, physical
and even sexual abuse from the nuns and priests
who ran the Laundries and some were never able to leave,
spending the entire lives as prisoners of Catholicism. The
existence of these establishments went curiously undiscussed
and knowledge of them was largely unknown to the outside
world. This resulted, astonishingly, in their continued existence
right into the 1970s. It was then that land and buildings
owned by the Sister of Charity in Dublin was sold to the
government, the subsequent inspection of which revealed
the existence of 133 unmarked graves, those of women who
had died in one of the Magdalene Laundries. The truth was
finally out, and it caused an outcry. It was to be another
two decades before a memorial to the Magdalene girls was
It's a shameful aspect of Irish religious history that
is dealt with head-on by Peter Mullan's film. Mullan tells his
story through the eyes of four inmates, three of whom – Margaret,
Bernadette and Rose – are incarcerated in the opening fifteen
minutes for the moral crimes of being sexually assaulted,
flirting with boys and bearing a child out of wedlock. On
their arrival at the Laundry they meet Crispina, another
unmarried mother who has been there long enough to know
the ropes but who is still regularly victimised. Once under
the supervision of the malicious Sister Bridget, the girls
deal with their incarceration in various ways, but all three
newcomers see escape as the only viable option.
kicks off his drama with some style, with the three girls pulled
from their normal lives and deposited into the Laundry with
impressive filmic economy. Following a sexual assault on Margaret
at a dance, the judgmental consequences are shown through
a series of long lens close-ups of faces as the word is
spread, the dialogue drowned out by music and the story told
completely through expression, movement and body language.
When Margaret is woken next morning and unceremoniously
shipped off, we know exactly what it's about, despite no
word on the matter having been audibly spoken. Bernadette's
fate is effectively sealed in just two shots. Having observed her flirting with local boys from the schoolyard, the camera
pulls back to reveal two watching figures, one of whom throws the other a significant look. Cut to the two girls we have
previously seen fighting over Bernadette's hairbrush running
into her dormitory to encounter an empty bed. This time
we don't even need to see her departure to feel for her fate.
Perhaps the nastiest episode is the last. Rose sits in hospital cradling her new-born baby whose existence Rose's mother refuses to acknowledge. A short while later she is taken by her father
to meet her grimly judgmental priest, who throws a Catholic
guilt trip on her of such magnitude that, before she realises
what has happened, she has agreed to give up the child for
adoption and is being carted off to join the other two unfortunates.
once we get inside the Laundry that economy and originality
gives way to a more familiar and in some ways predictable
formula. From here on in the film plays like a traditional
prison drama in which the assembled foursome conform to prison movie archetypes: the rebellious
one, the strong-willed one, the sympathetic one and the
naive victim. The effect of this is particularly felt on Crispina's
character, who from the moment she appears has a 'doomed'
sign floating above her head, not from anything she says
or does but from the curse of generic tradition – that's
what the simple-minded innocent is there for, to
take the suffering that will allow the others to become
stronger and triumph over adversity. Completing the picture
is Geraldine McEwan's maliciously nasty Sister Bridget,
who fulfils the narrative role of villainous prison warden
so completely that the character comes off as somewhat one-dimensional.
Though eye-catching and definitely enjoyable to watch, McEwan
has the evil nun act cranked up to such a degree that it borders
on parody, and I, for one, was always aware I was watching
a performance. The priest who coldly persuades Rose to give
up her baby in the opening sequences is actually far more
unpleasant, because he feels very much for real (the revelation that he is played by a real priest actually gave
me the creeps). The prison drama structure is completed by
returned escapee Una, Bernadette's thwarted departure plans,
and the final flee from captivity, which though a little
inevitable is nevertheless invigoratingly handled.
of which presents us with two ways of viewing the film, as
a serious drama about an important issue that is weakened
by formulaic characterisations and plot development, or
a film that uses generically familiar elements to subversively
expose a long-hidden truth and attack a powerful international
institution. Take your pick, but I can't help but feel this
is a potentially devastating drama that has been compromised
just a little by its self-imposed generic pigeonholing and am left with
that aching feeling of what might have been.
doesn't mean the film fails to deliver, not by a long shot.
The girls themselves are all terrific, and there are some
genuinely electrifying moments where the narrative shakes
off its generic straight-jacket: Margaret's ferocious verbal
assault on her brother when he asks her to hurry up; the
accidental discovery of an escape route that for reasons
not literally spelt out just cannot be taken; Crispina relentlessly
shouting "You are not a man of God!" at the priest
who has abused her; the angry freeze frame as Bernadette
swings her head round to face two nuns in the closing scenes;
the genuinely painful sequence in which Crispina is dragged
screaming from the dorm. And within the aforementioned constraints,
Mullan delivers a solidly told drama and deserves praise
for bringing this issue to a wider audience. It's
a damned good film, an intelligent and at times very powerful
one. But I can't help thinking that with a little more daring and less reliance on
formula, it could have been a great one.
shot on a low budget, The Magdalene Sisters has a
gritty look familiar to fans of realist British cinema,
which means that grain is often visible and occasionally
the contrast is less than perfect, but on the whole this
is a solid enough transfer that reflects well how the film
looked in the cinema. Colours are a tad muted, but again
this was intentional, and for the most part black levels
are fine. The transfer is sharp within the constraints of
the film stock.
not a film you would expect to make strong use of 5.1, there
are times when the sound really delivers, most notably in
the opening sequence, where the music really kicks, the
bodhran really thumping the subwoofer. The scenes set in
the midst of laundry activity make fine use of the rear
speakers to immerse you in the action, as do sequences set
outside in the rain.
not a special edition, the disc does have a couple of very
solid extras that lift it above the trailer-and-featurette-only
status. First up is a Commentary from director Peter Mullan. Mullan is a good talker and
nicely down to earth, supplying some useful info about the
making of the film, the fact that it was shot on location
inside one of the old laundries and that one of the sisters
is played by a real ex-Magdalene nun (who left because "she
didn't like what she saw"), which adds to the film's historical
credibility. Mullan seems awkward about giving fine technical
detail, and precedes almost every such moment with the phrase
"Here's one for you anoraks out there," which
you probably qualify for if you're listening to the commentary
track at all, at least by Mullan's measuring stick. He is
also surprisingly critical of his own cameo in the film,
revealing that his Irish accent was so poor that he had
to redub all his dialogue in post production. Overall it's
an enthralling commentary, and made me immediately chase
after the Orphans disk to give the commentary there
of Peter Mullan's earlier short films
are included. I especially applaud this, as short films
are the calling card or training ground for many directors
and too rarely get seen. In the 1993, 15 minute Close,
Mullan not only directs but stars as Vince, a confused and
somewhat self-righteous flat tenant who passes violent judgement
on neighbours he feels are deserving of his punishment.
Presented 4:3 with a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, the film is nicely
shot on grainy black-and-white stock, scores on atmosphere
and is a decent enough showcase for Mullan's talents as
actor and director, even if there's a film studenty feel
to the whole enterprise. The 1996 Fridge runs for
20 minutes, is presented 1.66:1 non-anamorphic with Dolby
2.0 sound, and really shows Mullan maturing as a director.
Again shot monochrome on grainy stock, the film tells the
tale of a boy trapped in an abandoned fridge at the back
of a housing estate and the attempts of an alcoholic couple
to free him. This is a particularly effective short drama
with strong performances a solid subtext about the breakdown
of community and family on modern housing estates, and is
a fine inclusion on the disc. The transfers of both shorts
are fine, with excellent contrast and solid black levels.
Grain is clearly evident, but part of the aesthetic and
in no way distracting.
the commentary track Mullan makes reference to the cast
audition footage also included, so I was rather
looking forward to this, but expectations of a Ginger
Snaps-like collection were dashed by four sequences
of 40 seconds or less whose main strength is to show how
little Mullan changed the characters from how they were
first performed by the actresses in the audition stage.
These are all 4:3 and shot on what looks like VHS, though
it could be DV in crap lighting.
theatrical trailer is presented
16:9 anamorphic and Dolby 2.0 and is of similar quality
to the main feature. As a trailer it does mislead somewhat,
with carefully selected shots and a Hollywood-style 'big'
emotional score, it dodges the controversial stuff and suggests
a dignified drama of women triumphing over circumstance
suitable for the whole family. No mention of the 18 certificate
there is an audio description for the visually impaired,
a feature I have no use for myself but approve the inclusion
we screened this film it filled the cinema; whether it was
reputation, controversy or interest in the subject matter
that brought people in it's hard to say. I admire any film
that sets out to expose the dark side of religion, especially
when it is so close to home, and despite its often formulaic
structure, The Magdalene Sisters has much
to recommend it and absolutely should be seen, especially
by those blinkered, self-righteous souls for whom the church
can do no wrong. If the film cuts the mustard for you, then
this disk certainly will – the picture and sound are fine,
Mullan's commentary is a very good listen and the inclusion
of two of his short films is a welcome plus. On the whole,
this DVD comes recommended.