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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 February, 2003, 10:25 GMT
Mullan's harrowing tale
By Margaret Ryan
BBC News Online

The Magdalene Sisters won the Golden Lion best film award at the Venice film festival but this controversial piece telling the stories of "sinful" girls sent away to work in an Irish laundry run by nuns has divided opinion.

Many Irish newspapers refused to accept adverts asking for help in researching this film about the notorious Magdalene Laundries because the subject was too controversial.

It is little surprise The Magdalene Sisters provoked such a response from its inception as it does not make for comfortable viewing.

This is a world where girls are taught that "all men are sinful"

Set in rural Ireland in the 1960s, it tells the harrowing stories of four girls sent away to the asylums run by Catholic nuns to atone for their sins.

And the sins for which they have been banished are having babies born out of wedlock, being raped by a cousin and being an orphan too pretty for her own good.

Fighting spirit

Abandoned by their families and friends, the girls are subjected to mental and physical cruelty.

They are forced to work in sweatshop conditions in a laundry "to remove the stains of their sins."

Nora-Jane Noone impresses in her acting debut as Bernadette - a virgin exiled for her flirtatiousness.

The newcomer to the institution is determined to fight against the injustices of a bleak regime asking why they have been sent there when they have committed no crime.

And indeed the audience asks the same question of a so-called civilised religious society.

This is an insular world where girls are taught that "all men are sinful".


Coming from an Irish Catholic family, whose mother grew up in rural Ireland around this time, I heard mention of girls who had "brought shame on the family" and were sent away to the nuns in the dim distant past.

But it is difficult to imagine how such institutions are said to have existed up until 1996.

Some 30,000 women and girls are believed to have lived in the laundries.

Based on true stories, this fictional account is at once thought-provoking, deeply moving and disturbing.

It remains to be seen how far it paints a true picture of what life was like inside the Magdalene asylums.

Scottish director Peter Mullan said he got the idea for the film after seeing a documentary on the subject.

But Vatican Radio - which transmits speeches by the Pope - said its narrative was "clearly false".

The debate seems to have only heightened the audience's interests, with cinema-goers flocking to see it when it opened in Ireland.

Certainly it richly deserves to have won the prestigious title of Golden Lion best film award at the Venice film festival.

Chilling persona

Its portrayal of a harsh stark world where dispossessed girls are taught to suffer in the name of religion is compelling.

There is little-let up in the high drama as the worst hypocrisies are exposed.

The nun who is the girls' jailer is not a one-dimensional evil character.

Sister Bridget (played by renowned actress Geraldine McEwan) is all the more chilling because of her ability to deliver cruel beatings and inflict humiliations for the smallest of misdemeanours.

The fear of that cruelty is captured as effectively as the violence itself.

It is a poignant and shocking film where the characters evoke our empathy with little need for mood music or camera trickery.

The audience is left wondering will the girls ever escape the confines of the laundry and if so, will the community that rejected them welcome them back.

It is hardly surprising the Vatican and sections of the Catholic community railed against this piece.

It is an unforgiving film.

The Magdalene Sisters is released across the UK on Friday



Mullan: Success the hard way
09 Sep 02 |  Film
Magdalene Sisters: Your views
14 Feb 03 |  Reviews

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