The Magdalene Sisters (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner17/02/2003

Four out of five stars
Running time: 119 mins

Well-made drama with impressive performances from its three leads – it’s occasionally heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative, but the subject matter justifies the anger you’ll feel.

The Magdalene Sisters is actor-turned writer/director Peter Mullan’s follow-up to his blackly comic directorial debut Orphans. Not one to shy away from controversial subject matter, Mullan has chosen to write and direct a film about the infamous Magdalene laudries that existed in Ireland until the late 20th century – the last one apparently closed in the 1990s.

Accordingly, the film raised a few hackles in Ireland, where the laundries are an understandably emotive issue. It also took the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. As such, it’s an impressive, well-acted film, despite the fact that Mullan’s obvious anger at the subject matter occasionally sends the film too far into manipulative melodrama territory.

Sister Bridget

The story is set in 1964 and told through three main characters: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who, in the film’s impressive opening sequence, is raped by her own cousin; Rose (Dorothy Duffy), an unwed mother; and pretty Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), whose only crime is that she seems to attract a lot of male attention. Each of the girls is packed off to the Magdalene laundry, where they are put under the ‘care’ of Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan). Ostensibly they are there to operate a laundry for their keep, but essentially, they are imprisoned, with strict rules to adhere to and Sister Bridget as their sadistic prison warden…

The performances by the three relatively unknown leads are excellent, ensuring that you really come to care about their characters. Particularly impressive is newcomer Noone, whose character steers a complex path between likeable and unlikeable.

Similarly, Geraldine McEwan is convincingly evil as Sister Bridget, though it’s a shame that she’s been demonised to the point where her only glimmer of humanity is in her joyful reaction to a screening of sentimental Bing Crosby / Ingrid Bergman vehicle The Bells of Saint Mary.

Arresting Image

The film looks impressive too, thanks to some effectively stark photography by Nigel Willoughby. Mullan also has a good eye for an arresting image (such as the close-up of Bernadette’s bloodied eye), ensuring that several of the scenes will stay with you afterwards.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t without flaws. For one thing, Mullan’s cameo –as the enraged father of the first attempted escapee- was probably ill-advised. Similarly, the film frequently resorts to heavy-handed emotional manipulation (particularly in the case of Eileen Walsh’s role as Crispina) that threatens to tip it into melodrama.

However, you can’t help but feel that Mullan WANTS the audience to be fired up and angry as a result of the film and, if this is the first you’ve heard of the Magdalene laundries, then that is likely to be your emotional reaction.

In short, this is a well-made, superbly acted and frequently impressive film despite the odd lapses into melodrama. Recommended.

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The Magdalene Sisters (15)
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Content updated: 20/08/2018 15:37

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