Airing the Dirty Washing in Public

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Review of 'The Magdalene Sisters', director Peter Mullen

Margaret is raped by her cousin at a family wedding. Rose has just given birth out of wedlock and has her son forcibly taken for adoption. Bernadette is in an orphanage and is unaware that her blossoming sexuality will be used against her. All three are sent against their wills to the Magdalene Laundry.

Named after Mary Magdalene, the penitent 'sinner' of the Gospels, the laundries were closed institutions for 'fallen' women in Ireland. They were run by the misnamed 'Sisters of Mercy' on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy. More than 30,000 Irish women were incarcerated indefinitely in these institutions, and it is almost impossible to believe that the last one was closed as recently as 1996.

Set in Dublin in 1964, Mullen's film is a stunningly powerful indictment of a priest-ridden society's attitude to women--a classic example of the victims being blamed for their own misfortune. It makes for harrowing viewing, moving you to anger and tears.

In the laundries the women are used as slave labour and brutalised for their pains. All the while their 'sinfulness' is thrown back in their faces. They work unpaid for eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week, cleaning the laundries of local hospitals, hotels and other institutions. Sister Bridget, brilliantly played by Geraldine McEwan, presides over their misery and delights in counting the profits from their labour. The visiting priest, Father Fitzroy, is fawned over by the sisters while sexually abusing one of the 'simple-minded' inmates.

The other aspect of this tragedy that Mullen doesn't shirk is the complicity of the families in the incarceration of the women. In a heartrending scene Rose has just given birth to her son, and her mother, sitting bolt upright next to her bed, refuses even to look at the baby. Meanwhile her father is in the corridor negotiating the removal of the child with the local priest. And Margaret is dragged from her bed by her father after her rape and is spirited away in the night--out of sight and out of mind.

The film captures perfectly the inner torment that the women face. On the one hand they know they are the victims of a terrible injustice, yet they are still bound by their faith in religion. Many are confused, accepting that they have sinned but knowing that nothing could justify their ordeal. Out of the conflict between these two contradictory feelings grows a moving drama. The women develop a real sense of solidarity and gradually build on their spirit of resistance. But Mullen does not duck the fact that there is no automatic unity among the oppressed, and the way he expresses the complexities of their relationships prevents the film slipping into sentimentality. He is helped by extremely effective camerawork that manages to capture in the faces of the women both their inner torment and their determination to confront it. The performances of the three women in the central roles also evoke these two feelings brilliantly.

It would spoil the viewing of it if I described the ways in which the gripping drama unfolds as the young women confront their crises and their jailers. Suffice to say that they carry the scars of their experience with them throughout their lives, even though they refuse to play the role of passive victims.

This is a film that I can't recommend too highly. It should be compulsory viewing in every town and village of Ireland, though somehow I doubt if it will reach the audience it deserves. Of course the grip of the church has been loosened in recent years, but that's no reason to forget the lessons of this shameful story.