One way or another, every patriarchal religious society must grapple with the pesky problem of female sexuality—the problem, in other words, of what to do with all those demonic hussies. My Jewish ancestors commanded women to wear full-length garments and wigs (or to keep their hair under hats): This, explained the great scholars, was to remove temptation, since men could hardly be trusted to control their libidos during those long nights of Torah study. Islam took its lead from Jewish law but leapt to the next level of repression, keeping women thoroughly swaddled, even in 110-degree heat. And observant Muslims are teetotalers: They didn’t even have to worry about how good almost anyone looks after three or four Scotches.
Imagine what a challenge female sexuality must have been for the Catholic patriarchs of mid-20th-century Ireland, which is the setting of Peter Mullan’s gruelingly severe melodrama The Magdalene Sisters (Miramax). These men were whipped into religious obedience in their youth, yet known to take a disinhibiting drop or two. You can understand the impulse to remove from their sight the naughty girls, or the girls who merely provoked the naughty thoughts: to shut them away with a lot of nuns, who’d surely save their souls. And think of how much laundry all those bad girls could do!
It sounds like a sick joke, but until the last one closed in 1996, the so-called Magdalene Asylums (cum commercial laundries) would serve as prisons for tens of thousands of “immoral” Catholic girls, some of whom would die of old age in them. The bar for admission was apparently not high: a child out of wedlock, a petty crime, a revealing outfit, a come-hither look. … Sent away by their families (under the auspices of the local parish), the Magdalene girls would work for eight to 10 hours a day, 364 days a year, and be subject to beatings, sexual humiliations, and taunting lectures on the evils of the flesh. To their families and the outside world they were neither alive nor dead: Their existence was simply repressed.
A few years ago, Mullan—a great Scottish actor who was raised a Catholic—saw Steven Humphries’ Magdalene documentary on Britain’s Channel Four, Sex in a Cold Climate. It must have made him livid: You can feel his righteous fury in every frame of The Magdalene Sisters. The movie, which he also wrote, is both a masterpiece and a holy hell: Watching it, you feel you’re being punished for a crime you didn’t commit. Which puts you, come to think of it, in the same frame of mind as those poor Magdalene girls.
Mullan has you by the throat from the opening scene, in which he introduces the first of his three female protagonists. It’s a family wedding party in 1964, with drinking, Celtic wailing, and fierce tribal drumming. Teenage Margaret (Ann Marie Duff) makes the mistake of following a male cousin upstairs. Then she makes the mistake of getting raped. Then she makes the mistake of telling a female cousin about the violation between sobs. I’ve never seen anything like the sequence that follows: a series of tight close-ups, anxious looks Margaret’s way, and charged exchanges between men and clergymen drowned out by those pounding Celtic drums. When it’s over, the boy rapist is left alone, and Margaret is carted away.
The second protagonist, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), is an orphan who flashes one or two saucy looks at the boys who eyeball her from a walkway overlooking the orphanage playground. And that’s all she does to earn her exile—get looked at. The third girl, Rose (Dorothy Duffy), at least had consensual sex. She gives birth to a child she wants to keep, then weeps to her father just to look at her baby boy and see how beautiful he is. It’s not the best strategy for keeping her freedom. On Rose’s first night at the Magdalene asylum, as she moans in pain from her swollen breasts, a Good Samaritan advises her to keep those milky excretions to herself: “The nuns go crazy if they see ya leakin’.”
Are the nuns that nuts? Is the Pope Cath—? Never mind. The laundry’s overseer is Sister Bridget, played by the magnificent Geraldine McEwan with a voice that’s the stuff of nightmares: She trills her insinuations with grandmotherly melodiousness. Sister Bridget is a radiantly certain sadist whose cruelty is a like higher calling: All kinds of tortures can be rationalized in the name of laundering away these wicked girls’ sins. She might be the sanest person in her order, though. In the movie’s most notorious scene, two of her underlings line a bunch of the girls up naked and, between giggles, choose the hairiest, the one with the smallest breasts, the one with the biggest hind quarters, etc. It’s all good fun, of course—and fun in the name of making these sinners despise their own bodies, which can’t be bad.
The Magdalene Sisters is a horror movie—in some ways it reminds me of Peter Walker’s widely reviled English shockers House of Whipcord (1973) and Frightmare (1974), which examined the demonic energy released when the religiously repressed ran straight into the sexual revolution. But this isn’t just a melodrama about wrongly imprisoned waifs and psycho nuns: The real horror is how the girls are warped from within. Watch how Bernadette steals a cherished St. Christopher’s medal from a simpleton called Crispina (Eileen Walsh) and refuses to give it back—even as Crispina weeps, sickens, and attempts to hang herself. Bernadette hates Crispina for being so open, so weak, so she punishes the girl even more cruelly than the nuns do. And Bernadette mercilessly mocks a dying old woman who has spent a lifetime at the Magdalene asylum—a crone who, in her madness, evolved into a spy and enforcer for her jailers. The performance of Nora-Jane Noone is incomparable in these scenes: In one instant she surveys the old woman’s corpse with a mean satisfaction; in the next she plants a tender, pitying kiss on the dead woman’s forehead.
Another girl, Una O’Conner (Mary Murray), flees the asylum and is brought back by her father, who tells her she has no home even as she sobs wildly for her “Da.” The punch line is that Una eventually joins the Magdalene order to rein in girls just like herself. The father who furiously rejects her, meanwhile, is played by Mullan, who joins the line of liberal crusaders from John Sayles to Tim Robbins who thrive on playing the fascist monsters they decry. The Catholic Church has denounced The Magdalene Sisters, but this isn’t an anti-Catholic movie per se. Mullan has targeted any social order that attempts to manage unmanageable sexual impulses by punishing the people who elicit them: a foolproof recipe for hell on earth.