They. Were. Oppressed. Got it? 

No Subtlety in Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters

dir. Mullan

Opens Fri Aug 22

Various Theaters

Is there a time when it's appropriate for a film to bludgeon you about the head with anger and horror and outrage? Much is sacrificed (narrative continuity, character, plot) in The Magdalene Sisters to the terrible injustice wreaked upon the girls virtually imprisoned in the Magdalene laundries in Ireland--girls sent away by their parents (with the collusion of family priests, relatives, and a priggish society) for getting pregnant, being raped, or just for being dangerously attractive. Effectively, the girls were disowned. "You got no ma," a father (played by director Peter Mullan himself) hisses at his daughter who has tried to escape, "and you got no pa." The film is very heavy-handed and obvious, and perhaps too moralizing for a film about the dangers of moralizing.

On the other hand, the injustice is stark and terrible; is it possible that subtlety isn't appropriate here? The laundries sound like something out of the Dickensian past, and yet the last one closed only in 1996. But still, Mullan takes a few easy outs. The nuns who run the convent laundry tilt toward the evil rather than the misguided: In the shower they put the girls into a lineup and compare their breasts and pubic hair, chuckling all the while into their habits, and Sister Bernadette's money-love is nearly the stuff of caricature. One gets the sneaking suspicion that the director doesn't quite trust us to understand just how awful the whole thing is. And yet, there's the great, wonderful, excellent Geraldine McEwan, who takes Sister Bridget over the top, her voice swooping from a not-so-innocent chirp to a low, dangerous growl. A spectacular performance, but perhaps the wrong movie for it.

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