Successful art requires some sort of aesthetic distancing, and distancing of any kind is so woefully lacking in Peter Mullan’s pop-eyed The Magdalene Sisters, from Ireland, that its portrait of cruelties inflicted on girls and women at one of Ireland’s Magdalene Sisters Asylums ends up tainted by those very cruelties, in which the film seems blindly to indulge. To be sure, a subversive wicked sense of humor, at the expense of God, Roman Catholic tenets, and Catholic institutions, adds something of a counterbalance, but Mullan’s film slips over the line more than once into territory than can only be called pornographic in its apparent relish to expose just how horribly females were treated in these institutions. The statement that Mullan makes, no matter how sincere it may be, becomes horrible itself. The film, relentlessly brutal and occasionally brilliant, won the world’s second-most prestigious film prize, the Golden Lion of St. Mark, at the 2002 Venice Film Festival.
The Magdalene Sisters Asylums, begun in the nineteenth century, were originally places for prostitutes to repent their sinful existences through prayer and a regimen of hard, productive work. By the 1940s they had become Church-sanctioned dumping grounds for parents who wished to unload female offspring in an effort to avoid neighborhood gossip and public scandal. These abandoned children had committed some sort of sexual sin according to Catholic dogma. Some had had sexual intercourse, resulting in the birth of a baby out of wedlock; some had been raped (such as, in the film, Margaret, who is raped by a relative at a family wedding); and some, obviously headed down the same path of disgrace, had been caught flirting with boys. Inside the institutions, the inmates lived mostly joyless lives of silent obedience and daily hard labor (the Asylums ran laundries), and were subject to whippings and crude, bloody razor-blade haircuts as punishment for any infraction of the rules. The term of an inmate’s stay ended only if the inmate managed to escape, a rare and usually reversible event, or if some adult family member came and retrieved her, an equally rare event. Since the inmates had been disowned by their parents, their rescuer would usually be a sibling or cousin. In any case, very often the term of incarceration lasted for life, and therefore, in the film, there are older inmates in addition to the young ones, some of them indeed old. Not until 1996 were all the asylums closed, by which time there had been some 30,000 inmates. Those who were released were almost always sexual neurotics as a result of their daily instruction equating sexuality with sinfulness, and, so, in a sense, their confinement continued even beyond asylum walls.
This is a wrenching history, until recently denied and covered up by the Catholic Church. Another grotesque feature was priestly rape. In one scene in the film, a girl who has been raped by a priest loses her mind, yelling at him in public over and over and over, “You are not a man of God!” The implication of the screenplay, which Mullan wrote, is that, regrettably, he is. The girl, committed to an insane asylum, dies of anorexia at age 24.
Such a film as this has no business being made in color, which should be used only when there is a specific artistic need for the use of color. Unfortunately, Mullan compromised the work’s integrity by opting for color on purely commercial grounds. (Alas, today film laboratories are routinely set up for processing color, not black and white.) Even more acutely, such a film as this can’t withstand the emphasis given here to the use of closeups and medium shots. They add little or nothing to the individuation of the inmates that the excellent cast of actresses already has taken care of; rather, these too-close shots shift the film’s ground from institutional criticism to a catalog of horrors. The net result is an emotionally exhausting work that inhibits our ability to process these horrors and their context and ramifications. Wouldn’t it be lovely if filmmakers like Mullan would become responsible artists and stop trying to make us feel something? Instead, they should do their job, which is to leave us alone and focus on developing their thematic material, allowing us to respond emotionally by dint of our own humanity and our engagement with their argument. (Our feelings are best left to us; we can take care of that part of the film-viewing experience.) The irony, blissfully above Mullan’s head, is precise: he is attempting to control us in a way highly similar to the way that the Sisters of Mercy, whom he excoriates, seek to control the asylum inmates. His doing this, therefore, unwittingly helps undo his own argument. Mullan—the same actor Mullan who plays Joe Kavanagh in Ken Loach’s 1998 My Name Is Joe—has neither the good sense nor respect for his audience that a genuine filmmaker would possess.
All that said, the film has a wonderful moment when a girl escapes beyond the asylum’s barriers, takes in a panoramic view of the countryside (here denoting possibility and freedom), and turns back to her imprisonment because she is not yet ready to meet the demands of freedom. Like the American slave system in the South, the girl’s experience at the asylum has fostered her dependence on the system that is extinguishing her hope and her life. Also, the finale, when two inmates escape, is powerful and moving. I cannot determine to what extent the earlier scenes of abuse of the girls may in fact contribute to the force of the film’s completion.
Geraldine McEwan is deft as Sister Bridget, who runs the asylum, and who lusts after cash and goes a little nuts when she can’t find the key to the safe where she keeps all of the laundry’s profits.
McEwan: Remember her fruity acting as Edgar’s wife opposite Olivier in the 1969 Dance of Death, from Strindberg? Her decent work for Mullan is certainly better than her more recent and ongoing, and most irritating, work as Miss Marple for British television.