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The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan) 2002


    Denounced vigorously by the Vatican as it was, you’d expect Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters to be a far more intelligently provocative and incendiary film than it is. To condemn a movie on moral grounds suggests that the film in question poses a real threat to the groupthink that powers your organization. I couldn’t imagine the crass manipulations and gross exaggerations of Magdalene would make anyone rethink their stance on the church. It’s not that the film doesn’t reveal wrongs. Certainly the horror story that the film creates as it follows four girls as they’re placed in the purgatory of a Catholic-run laundry is at times is self-evident. The true life specifics behind the events must have undoubtedly been more harrowing than the film suggest, however. The obvious plot arc which carries us from institutionalization to hard-won freedom keeps us from ever truly fearing for the characters. Since we’re so aware of the film’s genre (women-in-prison flick), we’re aware of the conventions of the genre, so it’s tough to get past the artifice that the film’s similarities to other prison flicks creates. As a result, the reality of the situation feels far off. That the characters are composite sketches based loosely on reality, and not patterned on actual people only further reduces what little sense of credibility that the film had.


    Mullan uses his directorial prowess to overplay his attitudes toward the girls and the nuns that oppress them. It’s tough to take the film seriously, when the first time we see the wicked Mother Superior, she’s counting the piles of money made from the girls’ toil. Every nun in the film, and every individual in a position of power is essentially presented as evil, be they clergy, principal, or parent. The tortured girls are saints in contrast. After botched escape attempts, the sisters shave their heads, making them look like Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. While these choice are effective in making sure we never doubt where Mullan’s polemical biases lie, such simplifications rob the movie of much of its dramatic effect. Most of the movie takes place directly from the point of view of the girls, but when he shows a close-up of a small child in one scene instead of a long shot, we see that he’s not at all above discarding his cinematic technique to try to wring out more emotional effect. Such a shot makes no sense in the aesthetic scheme of the film - since the girls never get to see the child up close we shouldn’t - but the shrewd and somewhat shameless Mullan understands the power that a sad kid’s face has on an audience. Such techniques essentially turn Magdalene into a propaganda piece.


      That’s not to say that Mullan has ineptly made his film. Three opening sequences that play before the credits are a stirringly conceived example of the power of visual storytelling. The director manages to compose his shots so that the images pack a certain amount of blunt force, even when you can’t accept the message they’re sending (The sun never shines in the laundry, for example, while outside it beams brightly. Also, a series of inscriptions proclaiming sentiments like "God Is Just" sit above the girl's beds.). Mullan elicits solid performances from his cast, with special note going to Nora-Jane Noone, who plays Bernadette, a young virginal schoolgirl who’s imprisoned only because she’s seen as a temptation to horny young boys. Her character arc is the most vividly conceived of any in the film, and the way her initial defiance wears down until she’s convinced of her guilt and judgmental toward others is the one truly affecting thing in the picture. She keeps her yarn from becoming a dirge, however, by infusing Bernadette with a blend of piercing intelligence and sexual intensity that recalls Angelina Jolie’s best moments. Still, these are small pleasures in a film that surrounds them with anguish. Instead of an important exposure of the truth that the church hid that such a solemn approach would suggest, though, The Magdalene Sisters feels like another manipulation of the facts.


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Jeremy Heilman