Magazine article The Christian Century

Dirty Linen

Magazine article The Christian Century

Dirty Linen

Article excerpt

IN CHRISTIAN tradition Mary Magdalene came to symbolize (without much biblical support) the fallen woman who repents. Roman Catholics made Mary Magdalene a saint, and her name was attached to the "Magdalene laundries" that flourished in Ireland throughout the 1900s. These convents, many run by the Sisters of Mercy, were designed as asylums for wayward Catholic girls who were sent there to learn humility and respect. But what they did most was laundry lots of it, while learning to fear the wrath of the nuns and priests who ran the institutions.

The brutal story of the Magdalene laundries is the subject of The Magdalene Sisters, by Scottish actor/ writer/director Peter Mullan, who delivers numerous body blows to the Catholic Church. The tale unfolds outside Dublin in the 1960s and centers on three teenage girls who have ended up, for different reasons, at the local Magdalene asylum.

Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) has been raped by her cousin at a family wedding, and once word spreads to her father that she has been soiled she is packed off to the Maggies. (The scene where news of the rape moves through the noisy crowd, played out visually under a blaring Irish jig, is masterful.) Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has had a child out of wedlock, and is cowed by the local priest into giving it up for adoption before being sent off to pay for her sins. And Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a pretty orphan deemed too coy and flirty for her own good, is shipped off before the problem child gets out of hand.

Once inside, the girls encounter the cruel and sadistic Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, in a chilling performance), who has the soul of a concentration camp commandant, prison warden and chain-gang boss rolled into one (though she's not above weeping during a special screening of The Bells of St. Mary's).

Once the principals are introduced, including a few lifers and various guards, the second act, as in all "women in prison" movies, explores just how nasty the authorities can be and how much punishment the girls can tolerate before they crack. (There are the requisite scenes of attempted escape and suicide.) But as the months turn into years, we start to notice how differently the young women respond to their daily doses of humiliation.

It is this twist that turns The Magdalene Sisters into a deeper and more disturbing film than it appears at first. …

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