The Magdalene Sisters

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The Magdalene Sisters

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Still reeling from charges of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Vatican officials summoned enough moral authority to condemn Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, the surest sign that the actor-director struck the right chord. A fierce and unambiguous exposé of Ireland's Magdalene laundries (which detained more than 30,000 morally "wayward" women to labor indefinitely in convent purgatories, until the last was shut down in the mid-'90s), the film drops bombs and scatters, like a good piece of muckraking journalism. But provocative politics don't always make for great cinema, because characters have a hard time carrying loaded messages without their knees buckling from the freight. Finding common ground between Charles Dickens and Roger Corman, The Magdalene Sisters marries realist melodrama with the sin-and-sadism of a women-in-prison movie, as its brutalized orphans are pitted against mirthless nuns with sneers and switches. Following his more subdued and even whimsical Orphans, Mullan here channels the same intensity that has distinguished him as a performer, most notably in My Name Is Joe and The Claim. His anger over this shameful blight in the Church's history–where religious dogma and patriarchal hypocrisy are once again cozy bedfellows–gives the film a pulpy charge, even as it forbids a more nuanced and thoughtful perspective on the issue. The emotions never run higher than in the brilliant prologue, which follows the sad fate of three young women headed for asylum in 1964 Dublin County. Under a pounding Irish folk song that drowns the dialogue into a silent conspiracy, Anne-Marie Duff watches helplessly as the men in the family decide to send her off for moral cleansing after she's raped at a wedding reception. The other girls tagged as "hookers and whores" include Dorothy Duffy, who's guilty of having a child out of wedlock, and Nora-Jane Noone, an attractive orphan who's booted for no greater offense than flirting with boys. Under the watch of a sinister, money-grubbing Mother Superior (played with lip-smacking relish by Geraldine McEwan), the women start their mornings with gruel and spend the afternoon scrubbing their sins away, a penance ritual with no clear endpoint. Based on a true account, though at least one major character was created from whole cloth, The Magdalene Sisters reserves all of its empathy for the inmates, whose day-to-day labors are re-created with startling primacy and force, almost to where the hardwood becomes another major character. But the film might have been more powerful, not to mention fair, if the nuns believed they were doing right; only on movie night, when McEwan sees herself in Ingrid Bergman in The Bells Of St. Mary's, does Mullan grant her so much as the delusion of rectitude. Other touches are simply inexcusable, such as a scene in which two nuns appraise the sinners' naked bodies for sport or a camera angle that equates oral sex with receiving the host. A brawler who doesn't know when to pull his punches, Mullan throws one haymaker after another, his unforgiving swipes aligning him closer to Mother Superior than he'd care to admit.

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