Magdalen Asylums were homes for "fallen" women, most of them operated by different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. It has been estimated that 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of these institutions, often against their will. The last Magdalen Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.
The Magdalene Sisters is a semi-fictionalized, composite account of the stories of four inmates. It opens in 1964 at an Irish wedding with a priest coiled around a drum, furiously banging away. The shaman is musically transfixed. His sweaty-collared appearance suggests that he may also be engaged in some manner of soul cleansing, no doubt involving an element of sexual release. Concurrently a young woman, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), is being raped by her cousin. When she reenters the wedding room, word of her violation round-robins through the crowd. The next morning, Margaret’s father ships her off to the Magdalene Laundry.
Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has just had a child out of wedlock. Priest and parents rip the baby from her breast, force her to sign adoption papers and send her to the laundry.
Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is reaching adulthood in St. Attracta’s Orphanage. When she innocently flirts with the local factory boys, she too is sent to the laundry.
The three sack-clothed girls are met by the convent’s Mother Superior, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), the provider of the “earthly means to help cleanse your very soul.” “All men are sinners ... therefore all men are open to temptation,” croons the diabolical head nun as she berates the girls for being “temptation” incarnate. Simultaneously, this Bride of Christ is greedily counting rubber-banded rolls of money in front of a photograph of the late President John F. Kennedy.
In the laundry, supervised by the semi-mad Katy—a 40-year veteran of the institution—the girls meet Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a mentally handicapped girl who refuses to wash priest collars. Crispina, whose real name is Harriet (the girls are routinely renamed by the nuns) has had a child out of wedlock, the father an anonymous soldier. Father Fitzroy, the asylum priest, is also sexually molesting the innocent, feeble-minded girl.
In one sadistically graphic scene, naked girls are lined up in the shower room as two nuns mock and compare the girls’ body parts. Apparently, this does not fall under the sinful category of lust or “impure thoughts.”
Bernadette incites the others to consider an escape, insisting “that all the mortal sins in the world would not justify this place.” But the consequences of a failed attempt can be grave. Director Mullan himself portrays a crazed father who brutally pummels his daughter in the asylum dormitory after an aborted escape.
A Corpus Christie celebration in town provides the girls with a short respite from their grueling life. But while officiating at the mass, Father Fitzroy is exposed before all as Crispina’s seducer through an avenging act by Margaret (both victim and victimizer come down with an irritating rash). With unabashed cruelty, the nuns send Crispina to an insane asylum, where she dies from anorexia at age 24.
Some years later, Margaret is released through her brother’s efforts, but not without one last humiliation at the hands of Sister Bridget. Bernadette, fearful of becoming a “lifer” like Katy, daringly leads Rose out of the convent, threatening to bludgeon with holy artifacts any nun who stands in their way. A postscript intimates that life after the asylum was grim for the three remaining Magdalenes.
Mullan’s film is an angry, direct work that displays an abundance of commitment on the part of both its creator and actors. The film depicts a society that up until only a few years ago tolerated Church-sanctioned torture and extreme levels of exploitation. One reviewer likened the “Magdalenes” to the Guantánamo Bay prisoners.
I pulled this stuff from other places to explain it. I just couldn't put it into words because I'm still reeling from it. I'm dumbfounded things like this happen, can still happen, in this day and age. I don't understand how people can be so cruel to other people; it's worse yet they do it in the name of God.