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The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Reviewed on 2007 July 6

I heard horror stories about the Magdalene Asylums or laundries and similar institutions. I didn’t know the last laundry ran in Ireland until 1996. That made my jaw drop.

This fact-based movie follows four women in a Catholic-run “home for wayward women” in the 1960s. The fact that someone could arbitrarily label some girl as wayward is frightening enough, but the yardstick used was medieval. One poor orphan, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), committed the horrible sin of being… too pretty for her own good. She’s merely standing outside in the yard when some neighborhood boys start flirting with her, and one of the heads of that institution decides it’s simply easier to freight her off than chase the boys away. Two other girls, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), are locked away under equally cruel circumstances. Crispina (Harriet Walsh) was a bit slow and had a child out of wedlock so her family was probably only too happy to deposit her at the laundry, but we’re given only pieces of her backstory.

It’s not enough that they slave away doing laundry as “penance”. The women are subjected to all kinds of abuse by the entire crew, helmed by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), who I’m firmly convinced is a relative of that horrible guard in Midnight Express. Her black eyes and inscrutable face seldom shift as she reminds the girls they’re all sinful creatures, and when Bernadette explains she never did anything, the Sister reminds her that her being a temptation to men is bad enough. To give you an idea of the hypocrisy of this hellhole, one early shot shows the girls all eating a breakfast of what looks like plain runny oatmeal, while the staff is sitting at another table, feasting on what looks like Sunday brunch at a yuppie country club. The movie grows darker and more depressing as it becomes apparent that these poor women have little chance of escaping.

The fine acting only makes it more painful. You can actually feel the cold floor under the girls’ feet and sense their misery.

Three chocolate morsels. It’s not a pleasant movie but I think people need to see this. The epilogue — one part in particular — will probably disturb you and interfere with your sleep. It did mine.

Shukti

morsel morsel morsel

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