The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Peter Mullan

VP Content Ratings


From Oct. 2003 VP

               Rated R  Our content rating: Violence-5; Language-4; Sex-3/Nudity-6.

 Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,

for we have had more than enough of contempt.

Our soul has had more than its fill

of the scorn of those who are at ease,

of the contempt of the proud.

            Psalm 123:3-4

“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

               John 8:4b-11

…not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

            2 Corinthians 3:6b


Peter Mullan’s film, which he wrote as well as directed, is not calculated to bring comfort to the Roman Catholic Church, already beleaguered by so much bad publicity in this country because of its poor leadership in dealing with predatory priests. Nor should Protestants take any comfort—after all, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s indictment of sexual hypocrisy was directed against the Protestant establishment of New England. Indeed, The Magdalene Sisters could be regarded as the Irish Catholic updated version of The Scarlet Letter. Instead of forcing a “fallen woman” to sew a red “A” on her clothing, in Ireland for the better part of the 20th Century, church and government colluded in removing “the fallen” (and in some cases, as we see in the film, even those whom authorities suspect might fall, even though they have not yet!) and locking them away in virtual prisons where they slaved away in the profitable laundries run by the ironically named Sisters of Mercy. Equally horrible and shocking is the fact that families voluntarily gave up their own daughters to this barbarous treatment, often treating them as if they were dead! We might dismiss the film, as some conservative Catholics have, as the fictional ranting of those who want to discredit the Catholic Church, but for the fact that the newspapers in Ireland have carried stories of the infamous Magdalene Laundries and of the Church paying out millions of pounds in settlement to women incarcerated in its sweatshops. Peter Mullan based his film on the stories of several real women, he tells us.

The story of this terrible period is told through that of three girls, each imprisoned under different circumstances. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) attends a wedding where a teenage boy lures her into a backroom and rapes her. He rejoins the festivities first, and, when the family misses the girl and then finds her in her disheveled condition, they blame her for the incident, rather than the boy. Soon, with no explanation or family farewells, Margaret is put into a car and sent away. Next we meet Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a well-endowed teenaged orphan who attracts boys like the color red draws hummingbirds. When the staff of the orphanage watches her banter with a group of boys gathered just outside the playground fence, they, apparently deciding to take no chances with her virginity, ship her off to the Sisters. The third girl, Rose is in the hospital where she has just given birth to a baby. Her father will not speak with her, and her priest convinces her that she must give up the child. She signs the papers, and then changes her mind, but no one will listen to her, and she is taken away to where “bad girls” are kept. Thus we see all three led by a nun down a long corridor to the office of the formidable Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), who brooks no questions or objections. Bernadette is confused because “I’ve done nothing wrong,” but no one pays any heed, especially the worthy Sister who claims to be doing God’s will. Well might Bernadette and her friends pray Psalm 123, because those who represent God certainly have no mercy to offer.

In the dorm that night each girl puts on a frumpy nightgown and only then, beneath its cover, remove their daytime clothing. Here we meet the fourth girl of the film, Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a slow-witted girl who has been imprisoned in the laundry for several years. We learn that she had become pregnant out of wedlock, and her sister, who had been given custody of the child, comes each month to stand outside the fence and waves at her from afar, because visits are forbidden. There are several interwoven plots, of girls trying to escape, of one who wreaks vengeance on a molesting priest by rubbing his vestments with poison ivory (as he rips off his vestments and clothing during an outdoor mass, she yells continually “You are not a man of God! You are not a man of God!”)

Much of the action begins in 1964—I shuddered when that date came on the screen, because that was the year I and thousands of others went to Mississippi during the summer as part of the Civil Rights movement, and at the same time, across the ocean, there was the oppression of young girls every bit as pernicious as Jim Crow—and no one then was raising a voice in their defense. The film will arouse many feelings and questions about the church as an institution, and of the truth lifted up the 16th century Reformers, that it must be “reformed and always reforming.” This is another film you will have to search out, for now in the small art house theaters, and soon, no doubt, on video. As those of us involved in the church watch it, we well might wince at its charges, as did those in ancient Palestine when a Jeremiah or Amos denounced the wickedness and hypocrisy of the nation’s religious leaders.

Some questions for reflection/discussion:

1) What do think of the contrast between the name Sisters of Mercy and their treatment of the girls in their charge?

2) How is the locking up of Bernadette, who has yet to do anything wrong, and the explanation by the Sister, similar to the way our government has been dealing with those incarcerated on suspicion of terrorist activities?

3) How did you feel when, during the procession through the village, the bagpipers played “Amazing Grace?? Think anyone was aware of the irony?

4) Compare the Hollywood view of nuns in the film being watched, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and the nuns in this picture.

5) The film deals with the Catholic Church, but are Protestants any less free of the problem? Why do clergy in many denominations have to attend workshops on sexual molestation and sign a paper that they have never been so involved?

6) How necessary is the institutional church? And how is the reformation understanding semper reformanda (always reforming) similar to the way the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus,” dealt with the religious institutions of their time?


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