MovieScope By Robert Snyder
It has not been a good year for the Catholic Church, in terms of public
relations. First, we read about the pedophile-priest scandal, culminating in the horrendous prison murder of Father Geoghan. Now, "The Magdalene Sisters" has been released. The movie won’t make nuns’ lives any easier.
The semi-fictionalized drama is a brilliant exposé of a particular type
of penal convent, which, until recently, was prevalent throughout Ireland. The Magdalene Laundries were reformatories for "wanton" girls, who were caught or suspected of having (or even thinking about having) pre-marital sex. The idea was that scrubbing disgustingly dirty clothes under the incisive eyes of sadist nuns would wash away the sin of promiscuity. At the head of the horror show
depicted in the film is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), who plays soul-saver while wreaking extreme mental and physical cruelty on basically innocent women... young and old (some are in the asylum for life).
Written and directed by Peter Mullan, the film focuses on three new arrivals at the Magdalene Laundry outside Dublin in 1964. Unaware of the consequences, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) reveals that her cousin has raped her.
Bernadette (Nora-Jane Duff) fatally flirts with some male students peering over a wall at her orphanage. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) makes the mistake of having a baby out of wedlock. So off to the asylum they go... to work and live in extreme regimentation, humiliation and brutality from sun up to sun down.
In Nora’s case, she is being punished simply because she is pretty.
Captured in an amazing star-turn by newcomer Noone, Nora is complex, developing a tough defense mechanism... much like Angelina Jolie’s character does in "Girl Interrupted." At times, she even seems sadistic, showing no sympathy to a dying elderly inmate and stealing a beloved pendant from the weak-minded Crispina (Eileen Walsh). Crispina, an unwed mother who only catches glimpses of her child through a fence, is very vulnerable to the nuns’ abusiveness and eventually loses her sanity completely.
Determined to survive, Nora makes continuous attempts to escape, one of which results in the brutal butchering of her hair and scalp by Sister Bridget and company. It’s a horrifying scene, ending in a spectacularly composed shot of Nora’s blood-drenched eye with pontificating Bridget reflected in the pupil.
As for McEwan, she should certainly be up for an Oscar. Her portrayal is all the more sinister because she shows the human side of evil. At one point, she confesses her love for film in an almost cute, girlish way and shows "The Bells of St. Mary’s," featuring Ingrid Bergman as the ultimate nun. We see Sister Bridget weeping as the movie rolls with Bergman’s beautiful face emoting on the screen. The head nun seems unaware that the actress she idolizes was ostracized in America when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Bergman would have been a prime candidate for the Magdalene Laundries.
Forget about the competing killers in "Freddy vs. Jason." For sheer
horror, Sister Bridget beats them both.