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Sacred Cows

For me, it's always nice to have an experience that's genuinely novel - whether
that be trying a new drink, making a new friend, or remembering my mother's birthday. Time
and money constraints, amongst others, mean that the scope for such activities inevitably
shrinks with the passage of time. And so it was nice to be able to do something new recently,
in the form of committing a mortal or venial sin (I'm not sure which, it's not really my native
theology) by going to see Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters.

Set in the 1960s and based on true events, this is the story of three young Irish girls
(Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, and Dorothy Duffy) of very different backgrounds
and characters - one has just been raped, another has given birth to an illegitimate baby,
while the third is simply a bit flirtatious. For these perceived offences, the girls are all
packed off to what's essentially a high-security laundry, run by nuns. It's a prison for those
the Catholic Church disapproves of, with eventual release entirely in the gift of the alarming
Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan)...

While there is a bit of plot scattered about, particularly at either end, The Magdalene
is mainly a fairly episodic film, cataloguing the horrors the girls encounter
during their captivity: sadism, hypocrisy, brutality, humiliation, corruption, and degradation.
So, not a comedy then. It's actually enormously to the credit of former actor Mullan (whose
best-known role, ironically enough, was probably playing Mother Superior in
Trainspotting) that the film remains as watchable as it does, given that it's so
unrelentingly grim and depressing. He does a very good job both with camera and script,
creating a film with a texture both bleak and rich, and he's not afraid to let images and
music, rather than dialogue, tell his story. The film is arguably a little overlong at two hours,
though. The main performances are uniformly excellent - McEwan, in an extremely showy
part, has attracted most of the attention but the three leads are arguably equally good.

This is another entry into that popular genre of films and books whose main raison d'etre
is to stick the boot to the Catholic Church. Not a single member of the Church, from the most
junior nun to a high-ranking bishop, is presented in a remotely positive or sympathetic light.
Before we see Sister Bridget's face, we are shown her hands as she gleefully counts the
money her laundry has made, all the while spouting pious aphorisms. The film doesn't spare
the Church's congregation from its ire, either: one key sequence has a disturbed young
inmate screaming 'You are not a man of God! You are not a man of God!' at an abusive priest
over and over and over again, while around her the local community look on in a silence that's
born more of embarrassment than shock or outrage.

In a way the sheer relentlessness and obvious anger of the film, the fact that it so clearly
has an axe to grind, begins to count against it. If this was an entirely fictional story it would
be justly criticised for depicting so many characters as morally worthless and utterly
without a redeeming feature - and I do find it hard to believe the Magdalene Sisters were
quite as evil as Mullan clearly thinks they were.

And the status of the film as a semi-fictional story does cause problems, because - so far
as I can make out - Mullan isn't playing entirely fair here. It's my understanding that while
the Magdalene laundries were (obviously) real, and that terrible abuses happened there, all
the characters in this film are fictitious. Mullan does not make this clear - indeed, he
arguably deliberately clouds this issue by including 'what happened next' mini-biographies
for all his main characters at the conclusion, something bound to make many viewers believe
they are real people. Mullan is clearly seeking to expose the truth about the laundries and
what went on there - but by conflating truth and fiction in this way he surely harms his own
case. If he's passing his characters off as real when they're fictional, why should we believe
in any of the other events depicted in this film?

But for all its historical ambiguities, its manipulativeness and its moral simplicity, The
Magdalene Sisters
remains a powerful and well-made film, filled with noteworthy
performances and powered by a deeply committed (if occasionally over excitable) script.
Not one to settle down in front of with a carton of popcorn and a giant-sized soft drink, but
worth looking out for anyway.

The Awix


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