A recent news story concerning state-collusion in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundry system was a grim reminder of the depths to which humans could descend to, when bigotry is infused into religion. As appalling it is to read accounts of the enslavement and abuse – physical and sexual – of these ‘fallen women’, in supposedly emancipatory institutions, it is nevertheless brought to life in chilling detail, in Peter Mullan’s award-winning 2002 drama, “The Magdalene Sisters”.
What is all the more shocking is that these laundries were fully operational until as recently as 1996, and even then, they were shut down not so much due to moral compulsions, but rather for economic reasons – with changing mores and widespread use of washing machines, these laundries had ceased to be profitable, and even regular institutional customers like the army had stopped using them. Those interested in further reading on the Magdalene laundry system may start from this wiki-link.
Set in the 1960’s and inspired by true events, the film follows the fate of three young women, starting from their induction into a Magdalene laundry. The first to arrive is Margaret – she’d been raped by a cousin, and her parents decide to send her here in order to protect their family’s reputation. And for bearing a child out of wedlock, young Rose is cruelly separated from her newborn, and also dispatched to the asylum. The third one to arrive is Bernadette – brought up in an orphanage – her only ‘sin’ was being attractive, and by inference, liable to induce lecherous feelings among men. None of them though, are aware of what lay in store for them at the asylum. They will soon enough realise that they’re nothing more than slaves, prevented from communicating with each another, and forced into hard labour at the laundry, devoid of any civil rights. They could be held there indefinitely until a relative offers to take them back. They notice that many have been languishing there since childhood, systematically abused by priests and nuns – physically, emotionally, and sexually. Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette fortunately find a happy end to their misery, but many inmates won’t be so lucky…
It may be one of the more distressing films you’re likely to see, but it is also one of the most thought-provoking and moving of films, well performed by all the principal actors, notably veteran actress Geraldine McEwan as the cold-hearted matron, Eileen Walsh as the terribly unfortunate inmate Crispina, and Dorothy Duffy as the forcibly separated mother Rose aka Patricia. The film pulls no punches in pointing out the failings of an institution which was originally conceived with a manifest for rehabilitating prostitutes (a la Mary Magdalene), but which hitherto extended its mandate to also include unwed mothers, flirtatious women, and even young girls who were simply deemed ‘too’ pretty. But it isn’t particularly critical of Catholicism itself. It is nevertheless an important film, reminding us that good intentions can easily and even unintentionally degenerate into cruelty and outright nastiness. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon DVD Link [PAL]
Apart from the film, the DVD also includes a documentary titled “Sex in a Cold Climate”, featuring revealing interviews from some of the former inmates themselves. Definitely worth checking out.
Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, and others
The only nude scene occurs in the middle of the film, where two nuns line up asylum girls and start humiliating them, by poking fun at their physical attributes. It isn’t particularly a pleasant scene, and is made all the more disturbing with the knowledge that it is based on a true account. Some of the girls featured here – Bernadette, Patricia (Rose), Margaret, and Crispina – also happen to be the main cast, played by Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff, and Eileen Walsh respectively.