Four women are given into the custody of the Magdalene sisterhood asylum to correct their sinful behavior: Crispina and Rose have given birth to a premarital child, Margaret got raped by her cousin and the orphan Bernadette had been repeatedly caught flirting with the boys. All have to work in a laundry under the strict supervision of the nuns, who break their wills through sadistic punishment.
Even though the setting isn't a penal institution but a convent, Peter Mullan's grim, powerful film fits snugly into a long line of heartsick dramas in which innocent people endure the degradation of prison. The inmates, all female, are the victims of a stringently moralistic brand of Irish Catholicism, now on the wane, that used to punish unmarried young women (many in their teens) for premarital sex. These "bad girls" exiled from their families and communities were forced to do slave labor in convent laundries that proliferated in Ireland until recently. "The Magdalene Sisters," which tells the semifictionalized stories of four young women in one convent, is set roughly from 1964 to 1969. Most prison movies have a monster authority figure, and so does this film. Here that ogre is the head nun, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a twisted diabolical autocrat. In a brilliant performance, Ms. McEwan makes this character horribly believable by portraying her cruelty not as raw sadism but as righteous punishment dispensed by a religious fanatic with a warped sense of values. — Stephen Holden
2002-09-28 | Stephen Holden | Read the New York Times Review of The Magdalene Sisters