The tradition of unrepentant ‘commitment cinema’ is a noble one, stretching back to Eisenstein and covering such classics as Z, Queimada and Salvador. Films, in other words, which are more concerned with stating a case and engaging the hearts and minds of the viewer rather than presenting an issue in an objective manner. The usual complaint with such films is that the presentation is so emotional and subjective that the ‘other side’ doesn’t get a look in but my argument would be that this is the strength of ‘commitment cinema’. It gains its energy and its interest through passionate adherence to a cause and if that means bias then so be it. I wouldn’t try to suggest that this is the only way to make a film about an issue or that it’s an entirely admirable way of doing it but cinema needs movies which drive viewers into speechless rage and Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters is just about guaranteed to do that.
The film, set in Dublin in 1964, centres around three girls - loosely based on real women - who are sent to the Magdalene Laundries for various reasons. Margaret (Duff) is raped by her cousin and sent to the Laundries by her father in order to cover up the crime. Bernadette (Noone) is guilty of nothing more than flirting with boys and is cast into hell by the pious principle of her school who considers her a potential harlot. Rose (Duffy) has become pregnant and had a baby out of wedlock and is forced into the Laundries by her parents, following the forced adoption of her son. The Laundries, the last of which closed as recently as 1996, were organised by the Catholic Church and intended as places where ‘fallen women’ would work ceaselessly in order to secure forgiveness and eternal life in Heaven. This Laundry is run by the tyrannical Sister Bridget (McEwan) who prides herself on turning a profit and despises the women in her care almost as much as she despises the men who have to be protected from them.
Mullan’s film isn’t simply angry; it’s furious. Watching it, you get the distinct sense that Mullan was so enraged by what he discovered about the Laundries that he couldn’t get them into any kind of perspective and the film was conceived in this period of white-hot fury. I say this in order to counter the argument that the film is fatally flawed because it’s too biased against the Catholic Church and the Sisters themselves. There is some merit in this point of view however. The Sisters, with the exception of Sister Bridget, given expert shading by Geraldine McEwan, are depicted as sadistic despots who hate their charges and use the concept of religious redemption as an excuse to treat the women as badly as possible. This works dramatically but an objective viewer is likely to wonder how much more thoughtful the film would be if it considered the pressures being placed upon the women in authority as well as those passed on to their inmates. It’s also true that the stories of the girls seem a little over-familiar, largely because of years of Irish-Catholic upbringings in television dramas and the recent BBC film about the Laundries. But one should also point out that the stories seem familiar because they were obviously typical of the experiences of the women who, year after year, were thrown into this purgatory. They were banal women, in the true sense of the word. There was nothing special about what happened to them but they were unlucky enough to be caught up in religious hysteria made policy.
However, I think the criticisms misunderstand the purpose of the film. It’s very biased, yes. Almost totally one-sided. But so are, for example, Missing and Salvador and the only way to appreciate Mullan’s achievement is to look at it in the same context. He is fighting his own war on behalf of the lost women who spent what should have been the best years of their lives in a well-documented hell of endless slavery. He wants us to get mad and I find it hard to believe that any viewer would leave this film feeling anything but helplessly angry about what was still happening as recently as 1996. The emotional impact of the film is such that preparing a balanced response to it is well nigh impossible. You can either reject the film as biased hysteria or you can admit that it’s stunningly effective filmmaking which, to put it simply, gets to you. This is manipulation admittedly but I personally think it’s manipulative in the pursuit of a decent and noble humanitarian purpose and is thus forgivable.
Whatever you think of the methods and thesis of the film, you can’t deny the quality of the performances. Mullan has got some extraordinary work out of relatively inexperienced actresses and also worked very well with more established performers. Principle amongst these is Geraldine McEwan. She’s always been a fine actress but I don’t think she’s ever done anything quite as chillingly memorable as her work here. She makes Sister Bridget a smiling monster who knows exactly what she’s doing and, what’s worse, enjoys it, like a cat toying with a bird. But suddenly, McEwan complicates matters; firstly after she has been responsible for a terrible act of hypocrisy, covering up abuse by one of the priests by sectioning the victim, as she stares into the distance and something, perhaps remorse, flickers on her face; and secondly, in the marvellous scene where a film show is prepared for the Archbishop. Entranced, she watches The Bells Of St Mary’s and, just for a moment, you can see the young girl she once was with the high aspirations and the genuine wish of doing something good for her fellow human beings. McEwan is too good an actress to capitalise on this feeling but it deepens the character and makes her more complex. None of the other nuns have any moments to compare with this which is a reflection both on the weaknesses of the writing and the sheer power of McEwan.
The actresses playing the victims of the regime are uniformly superb. Two of them, Dorothy Duffy and Nora-Jane Noone, have never acted on film before but you wouldn’t believe that if you didn’t know. Watching the audition tapes which are included on this DVD, you can see the talent there but the guiding of it is masterful. These are truthful, penetrating performances which never lapse into simplicity or cliché. Of the more experienced actresses, Eileen Walsh as Crispina, a girl with special needs who is on the verge of breakdown, deserves special mention for never playing for sympathy and being able to balance being incredibly annoying on occasion with being truly heartbreaking.
The Magdalene Sisters is only Peter Mullan’s second feature film but it has the style and confidence of a much more experienced hand. Mullan’s acting - demonstrated in a terrifyingly vivid moment here where he plays the father of one of the girls - has an emotional directness that’s deeply uncomfortable because there doesn’t seem to be a barrier between him and you. At his best, in films such as Ken Loach’s heartbreaking My Name Is Joe and the Jamesian horror story Session 9, he is as good as any actor currently working when it comes to expressing deep emotional truths. As a director, he has the same skill and there were moments in his debut feature, the blackly comic drama Orphans which crept up on you and suddenly left you incredibly moved even though you might not have been quite sure why. He achieves this frequently in his second feature film, particularly in the story of Crispina. The sight of her waving to the child who she will never know is bad enough but the scenes where she finally loses her tenuous grip on sanity are almost impossible to sit through. The final scene offers us faked ‘future histories’ of the girls - in itself a dubious tactic - but the one which stays in the mind is Crispina’s, perhaps because of all the girls she is the most vulnerable and the most betrayed by a faith which should have protected her. The more she prays and kisses her pendant, the more her fate is sealed. Mullan is sure, in this strand, to leave us with an image of hopeless sadness; a brave move which many directors would have discarded as being too cruel, both on the character and on the audience.
This connects with his other great skill as a director, namely capturing horribly messy emotions, something I always find very satisfying in a film. It’s there in the superb ambivalence granted Bernadette in the scenes where she displays real cruelty to Crispina and it’s memorably present in the scenes with Katy, a long-term inmate who takes pride in informing on her peers and dies alone, unloved and unmourned. Having consigned Katy to the stereotype pile on first meeting, it’s quite a shock when we’re brought up short with unexpected sharp pity as she lies dying. On the other hand, moments of jet-black comedy remind you of Orphans; the scene where the nuns strip the inmates and compare their bodies in childishly smutty terms for example, or the wonderful bit of farce where the girls get their revenge on the abusing priest in a particularly painful manner. In these scenes, The Magdalene Sisters is very reminiscent of Neil Jordan’s coruscating black comedy The Butcher Boy.
I’m not blind to the faults of The Magdalene Sisters. It’s somewhat simplistic in content, if not in detail, and the eventual resort to a very unconvincing chase-movie narrative is regrettable. It’s certainly suspenseful towards the end but it’s not the sort of emotion you want from a film which, at its best, has the power to move you to tears. Yet the performances are always convincing even when the turn of events is not and Mullan handles the set-piece scenes of cruelty with restraint and dignity. We’re horrified all right but we don’t have our noses rubbed in the horror, it’s allowed to seep into your mind as part of the everyday experience of these women. Over the opening credits and at the end, we see a black wall inscribed with the names of women who passed through the Laundries. There were approximately 30,000 of them. In this film, they have received a fitting monument.
Momentum Pictures have gained a good reputation for their treatment of both recent and classic films and The Magdalene Sisters has been presented with some style. Although it might not classify in formal terms as a ‘special edition’, the content on the disc is uniformally substantial and interesting, something which can’t often be said in these days of 2-disc releases packed with banal filler.
The film is transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Momentum have done a very impressive job with the transfer, which remains faithful to the deliberately grainy look of the film. Shot in 16MM with limited resources, the film makes a virtue of its almost documentary look, occasionally breaking into outright surrealism for contrast - one scene takes place as a reflection in Bernadette’s eyeball. The transfer is crisp, packed with detail and rich in colour. The grainy look is intentional and effective. There are no problems with artifacting.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s not an especially busy track but the surrounds are used for the beautiful music score by Craig Armstrong and for ambient effects, which are often very effective. The bass comes into its own in the opening scene with a priest playing a tabard but is otherwise very subtle. The dialogue is crystal clear, quite an achievement when Geraldine McEwan deliberately gabbles some of her speeches in malicious asides.
There are a number of excellent special features. Pride of place goes to Peter Mullan’s feature length commentary which is self-deprecating, informative and funny. He gives a lot of technical detail about the making of the film (“for anoraks”) and, refreshingly, refuses to interpret events for the audience. In this respect, he’s rather like David Cronenberg who makes an identical refusal in his commentary for Spider. Hugely enthusiastic and full of hints about how to make a professional film relatively cheaply, Mullan is a pleasure to listen to. We also get two short films made in fullscreen black and white by Mullan during the 1990s; Fridge - lasting 20 minutes -and Close - coming in at 16 minutes. These are very dark, blackly funny stories, spinning off from simple incidents, which won’t appeal to everyone but which are made with admirable economy using small casts. The only face I recognised apart from Mullan was Gary Lewis - father of Billy Elliott - but all the actors are impressive. Fridge is the better of the two since it is more imaginatively filmed and broader in scope. Close tends to seem like a ten minute rant rather than a story. Sadly, there is no commentary to go with these films. The transfers are very good, considering the limited quality of the original material and the mono sound is basic but audible. Neither of them are subtitled.
Along with these two main extra features, we get audition tapes for four of the actresses - Duffy, Noone, Walsh and Mary Murray who plays the attempted runaway Una. These are presented in fullscreen and are shot on video but the quality is perfectly watchable. Finally, the theatrical trailer is offered
There are 18 chapter stops. English subtitles are provided for the main film but not for the extra features.
An Audio Description Track is also offered.
Even if some people are going to hate every moment of The Magdalene Sisters, it remains an important film on a significant subject and one which deserves the widest possible exposure. The performances are superb and the film is made with exquisite control by an extremely promising director. Momentum have given this movie a highly impressive DVD release which is strongly recommended.
Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Peter Mullan's stunningly powerful The Magdalene Sisters. A very impressive film has received an equally impressive DVD release from Momentum. The disc is released on the 1st September.