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You are not a man of God
A region 2 DVD review of THE MAGDALENE SISTERS by Slarek
 

This review contains some spoilers, and if you haven't
seen the film you may want to proceed with caution.

 

I 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.

Peter 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?

A 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 erected.

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.

Mullan 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.

It's 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.

All 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.

That 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.

sound and vision

Clearly 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.

Though 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.

extra features

Though 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 a listen.

Two 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.

In 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.

The 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 here.

Finally there is an audio description for the visually impaired, a feature I have no use for myself but approve the inclusion of.

summary

When 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.

The Magdalene Sisters

UK / Ireland 2002
114 mins
director
Peter Mullan
starring
Geraldine McEwan
Anne-Marie Duff
Nora-Jane Noone
Dorothy Duffy
Eileen Walsh

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles .
English
extras
Peter Mullan commentary
Peter Mullan short films
Cast audition footage
Audio descriptive track
Trailer
distributor
Momentum
release date
Out now
review posted
30 December 2003

See all of Slarek's reviews