The attention-grubbing The Magdalene Sisters recounts the Dickensian horrors faced by “wayward girls” inside Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. These forced labor camps supervised by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order first came to director Peter Mullan’s attention through the Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, which detailed how 30,000-plus women were interned inside these houses before the last one was shut down in the mid-‘90s. Taking on what he sees as the Catholic Church’s fundamentally sexist and oppressive belief that sin is born to woman, Mullan allows the film’s devastating intro to play out like excerpts from a book of Bible stories: Rose (Dorothy Duffy) conceives a child outside of wedlock, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a family wedding, and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) dares to look at the boys standing outside the gates of her schoolyard. Shipped away by their families to the Magdalene laundry house, the girls are dutifully tortured and humiliated by a group of nuns overseen by the hideous Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, giving Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched a run for her money). Pain begets pain here and there’s no reprieve in sight.
Mullan’s observations of working life at the house are largely anecdotal. These establishments made money by cleaning clothes for their communities, and while there’s no clear implication here as to how money flowed in and out of the house, Mullan reduces Sister Bridget to a blubbering mess when she can’t find the key to the safe that guards her money, condescendingly implying that the thrill of commerce is enough to explain how devils are made of saints. Two scenes stand apart from the pack: the vain Sister Bridget crying during a screening of Leo McCarey’s humanist masterpiece The Bells of St. Mary’s and Margaret choosing not to escape from her prison through a garden door accidentally left ajar. These are Mullan’s only attempts at trying to understand the thorny seduction of Catholicism. Otherwise, Sister Bridget and her ilk come close to resembling cartoons, with the violence they wield so numbing it borders on the histrionic. There’s no discernable structure to this facile, episodic torture mechanism yet Mullan hopes that you’ll approach the film as a work of activism. That Magdalene Sisters arrives stateside with the full censure of the Vatican more or less confirms Mullan’s job-well-done.