Until 1996, the Catholic Church in Ireland judged and imprisoned women in institutions called the Magdalene Asylums. These asylums were named after Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who found redemption by following Christ in the New Testament. The Magdalene Sisters is the brutal true story of four women horrifically punished in these asylums by nuns, priests and the Catholic Church.
The Magdalene Sisters
Castigation is doled out by nuns with sadistic glee. All are judged equally sinful with no rhyme or reason. All the women arrive at the Magdalene Sisters laundries to slave over the “dirty laundry” of others while the nuns sit back to line their pockets with the fruits of free labor.
Margaret, Bernadette, Rose and Crispina are our guides into the ritualized tortures these women experienced daily in the Magdalene Asylums. Through their eyes, we witness countless atrocities. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is punished for having been raped by a family member. Bernadette’s (Nora-Jane Noone) crime lies in her beauty. Sweet, unwed Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has her baby torn from her and sold into adoption. Crispina (Eileen Walsh) is already lost inside. At first, she is awkward and childlike. It is quickly becomes clear that the persecution has worked at her mind. The terror of these initial scenes only escalates further into sheer depravity.
It is under the watchful eyes of these nuns that our guides begin to wither. First, Bernadette is broken. She is strong and beautiful until the ugliness of the abuse spreads within her like a disease infecting her interactions with the other women. Margaret falters when her freedom is within her grasp. The oppression immobilizes her. Rose exudes sweetness in spite of it all. Yet, the pain of losing her child creates a dull void in her eyes. Finally, poor childlike Crispina is spoiled by a sacred trust.
The Magdalene Sisters moved me to revulsion. Choked by rage, I reconsidered my hallowed beliefs. In one of the most memorable and easily overlooked scenes, we hear the haunting whisper of a girl forced to read aloud from scripture: I renounce all that could lessen the merit of my offering; I renounce all vanity, self-love, and human respect.”
Each and every day inside the walls of the Magdalene Asylums, women renounced all of these “sins” and The Magdalene Sisters compels you to watch their decline and rebirth unfold. It is difficult not to become transfixed by their torment but as the horror ebbs with the film’s conclusion, only a stunned silence ensues.
If you entertain any doubts about the accuracy of portrayals in the film, the DVD Special Features will put your mind to rest. The dramatic original documentary, “Sex in a Cold Climate”, is the only featurette available on the DVD. In the documentary, most of the women personally recount their frightening experiences in every painful, agonizing detail.