Director: Peter Mullan
Writer: Peter Mullan
Starring: Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh
In Last Exit to Brooklyn, the devoutly Catholic immigrant community upholds its sexual covenants in several ways, including the public humiliation of Tralala who is forever marked as a soiled woman to be shunned by all self-respecting folk. In the 18th century, Ireland’s sexual covenants formalised into communal approval for their Tralalas to be effectively imprisoned for life and commercially exploited. Although the first Magdalene institution was established in England in 1758, the practice achieved its fullest flowering across the Irish Sea: some 30,000 women were forced into unpaid servitude in Magdalene asylums for even minor violations of their country’s strict Roman Catholic sexual mores. Initially aimed at prostitutes, the Magdalene movement gradually widened its remit to include any young woman with the slightest whiff of sexual iniquity.
Set in the mid-1960s, Peter Mullen’s sombre The Magdalene Sisters documents the fate of four typical Magdalene girls. The opening sequence reveals the perceived crimes of the three main protagonists, Margaret, Bernadette and Rose. The film begins at a wedding, where a marvellously intense bodhrán-playing priest begs the Lord to spare weak humans from temptation; there’s no prize for guessing which of the deadly sins he’s sweating over. It’s all for naught as Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is lured into an attic by a male relative and raped. Afterwards it’s his word against hers as to who started it; in this deeply patriarchal society Margaret inevitably loses. She is woken at dawn, spirited out of the bedroom she shares with her siblings and taken away by a priest. The dormer window appearance of Margaret’s deeply concerned older brother foreshadows her ultimate fate.
Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is an orphanage girl with a smile for the boys and a truculent gleam in her eye. It is that gleam, rather than any failure of knicker-elastic tension, that dooms her to the asylum. For her part, the dreamy-eyed Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has, like Donna in Last Exit to Brooklyn, committed Ireland’s cardinal sin of having a child outside wedlock. “Ma, would you please just look at him,” she implores her mother who sits po-faced by the hospital bed. But Rose’s mother cannot look; the child is a bastard who, like the poor girl who sinfully begat him, shames them all. Just like Lynda’s prim father in Wish You Were Here and Big Joe in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Rose’s mother tries to minimise the damage to her social standing by rejecting her daughter and, by extension, her new-born grandson. Rose is emotionally blackmailed into giving up the baby: “Would you have him go through life as an outcast, Rose, rejected and scorned by all decent members of society?” Like Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry, Rose is treated not as a victim but an offender.
With the back-stories established, The Magdalene Sisters begins in earnest with the girls’ arrival at the asylum. There is no trial, no jury, no sentence, no parole; just a lifetime of unpaid laundry work within the narrow confines of the institution and its gardens. The superintendent, Sister Bridget (played with soft-spoken sadism by Geraldine McEwan), counts the takings while blathering about “the fallen finding their way back to Jesus Christ.” The original vision for the Magdalene institutions was rehabilitation and a return to society, but as the profits rolled in this charitable notion was abandoned; the return to Christ was postponed from here to the hereafter. Although euphemistically known as ‘fallen women’, the outside world has another word for them, as Margaret discovers when she unwisely interrupts Sister Bridget’s diatribe.
The superintendent waggles an admonishing finger. “Did no one ever tell you it’s bad manners to interrupt, or were you too busy whoring with the boys to listen?” Regardless of what Margaret did or didn’t do, she is tarred for life with the worst epithet her sex-negating society can bestow: whore.
From the plush confines of Sister Bridget’s office it’s down to the workhouse where the girls toil in silence all day. The sight of human flesh is so abhorrent that they must don their bulbous nightgowns while fully dressed and only then remove their daytime clothes without exposing themselves. Rose (now renamed Patricia due to the presence of another Rose among the girls) is immediately in pain from the breast milk she’s unable to express. While still dealing with the overwhelming emotional pain of losing her baby, she’s now advised to bear the physical pain: “The nuns go crazy if you start leakin’ all over the place.” In Ireland’s puritan society the negative reactions encountered by Lynda in Wish You Were Here are amplified to a point of violence that is sanctioned not only by the general public but also by the highest levels of political and religious authority. The emotional mechanics are clear: the girls’ behaviour violates communal boundaries, triggering shame-based feelings among the so-called righteous; the girls must therefore be sequestered and punished. The emotional toll on the girls is less than immaterial: it’s seen as merited.
The next morning’s breakfast—a threadbare affair compared with the luxuries served to the nuns at the high table—introduces the film’s fourth protagonist, the mentally unstable Harriet (Eileen Walsh), perversely called Crispina for reasons later apparent. As the full horror of the asylum’s institutionalised violence sinks in, Margaret, Bernadette and Patricia adapt in different ways, just as Crispina lives for those brief moments when her toddler son waves at her through a locked gate. Margaret settles down to life inside by befriending Crispina, while the tougher, street-smart Bernadette turns her mind to escape: “I’ll commit any sin, mortal or otherwise, to get the hell out of here.” Dreamy Patricia wavers between the two.
Bernadette’s first plan involves Brendan, a young man who delivers clothes to the laundry. He breaks the ice by requesting a blowjob. Bernadette rejects him but later realises that Brendan is her ticket to freedom. The next time he visits she suggests they marry and elope. Brendan wavers until Bernadette raises her skirt. “You can look. But if you try and touch I’ll have to kick your teeth in.” Bernadette cannot afford to grant access to the most secret, socially dangerous part of her body for anything less than freedom. Brendan puffs on a fag while gawking at Bernadette and decides the reward is worth the risk of stealing a key to the asylum. Bernadette runs down to the back door that night, only for Brendan to lose his nerve and cycle off into the darkness. Bernadette is caught and punished like Brandon, Georgina and Harry Black before her. The nuns vent their sexual rage through the savage lopping off of Bernadette’s hair to deliberately make her ugly. It’s not the last time in Sexcatraz this sex-based violence, inflicted by women on women, will be seen.
Whilst repeating the violence seen in previous films, the nuns also take the bathroom inquisition in Boys Don’t Cry and the stripping of the canteen owner in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover to another level. The Magdalene asylum has normalised the use of humiliation through enforced nudity: the girls are made to perform physical education exercises naked.
A nun disparages one of the girls for having tiny breasts. The derision of the girls’ sexual parts develops into a game: biggest and smallest breasts, biggest bottom. “That only leaves us with the hairiest…” The nun breaks into a nervous giggle, unable to even name the next body part to be shamed. The girls endure this ritual humiliation in miserable silence until the straight-haired Crispina, sporting the hairiest bush, breaks into tears: Crispina means ‘curly haired’.
Shamed beyond tolerance, Crispina tries to hang herself, only for Margaret to save her. Whether this constitutes a charitable action is, by the film’s end, highly debatable. Margaret later finds an unlocked gate in a remote corner of the asylum. She ventures onto the road beyond, drinking in the wide green rolling hills and the freedom they offer. Margaret stumbles back into the confines of the institution, no longer sure whether she can survive in the outside world. A young woman is raped, imprisoned, forced into servitude and beaten until her spirit breaks simply because sex, in any form other than within the bounds of wedlock, is regarded as so horrific that it must be met with brutal, lifelong punishment. This is the price of our unconscious sexual shame. The most horrific aspect is that no one questions any of this: not only is sex taboo but also questioning the taboo on sex is itself taboo. They are all trapped in Sexcatraz, and not one of them even knows it.
Margaret, nonetheless, has a revenge of sorts after she sees Crispina performing oral sex on a priest, Father Fitzroy. She rubs his clothes with some stinging plants, causing him to break out in a rash during a church service and strip naked to relieve the itching. Crispina’s contact with Father Fitzroy causes her to develop the same rash. It’s enough to break what little’s left of her mind. That night, men in white coats visit the dormitory and spirit her away. Crispina becomes just another ghost haunting the asylum.
With Crispina’s demise The Magdalene Sisters enters its final reel and the girls are treated to a screening of The Bells of St. Mary’s. For the first time Sister Bridget shows a trace of humanity, a tear trickling down her cheek as Ingrid Bergman implores, “Dear Lord, remove all bitterness from my heart.” This is the two-facedness of sexual shame: a heartfelt piety towards an idealised being, counterpointed by savage brutality towards vulnerable women, all in the name of that supposedly beneficent being. As the film screens, a young man arrives at the asylum—Margaret’s brother, now legally able to reclaim his sister. As Margaret leaves, the humility repeatedly beaten into her surfaces: she automatically presses herself against the corridor wall to make way for Sister Bridget. Then a spark of her original spirit flares and she steps directly into the superintendent’s path. Sister Bridget, like all authoritarian figures, has to have the last say: “If I thought for a second that you would seriously expect one of the persons here to step aside for the likes of you then, brother or no brother, I would punish such insolence most severely.” Margaret drops to her knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. The superintendent stares coldly down for one palpitating moment, contents herself with a reminder that Margaret will always be a whore then stalks off. Margaret is free.
Bernadette and Patricia soon follow. They break into Sister Bridget’s office to steal a key, but she wakes and wrestles them for it. Bernadette jabs a pair of scissors into the superintendent’s throat as her rage finally erupts. “Let go, you fucking twisted bitch,” she screams, voicing the audience’s long-held sentiments. Bernadette warns off the other nuns, wielding a huge candlestick like a berserker in a moment both humorous and cathartic. And with that release they too are gone, never to return to the horror of the asylum. A brief denouement shows Bernadette and Patricia’s escape and subsequent rehabilitation. There’s a tragic shot of Crispina in a mental asylum, now well beyond the reach of even her hand-waving little son. The film closes with accounts of the fates of the real-life women on whom the main characters are based, along with the awful revelation that Ireland’s last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996.
In Last Exit to Brooklyn, Harry Black, Tralala, and Tommy and Donna all inadvertently fall foul of their community’s sexual covenants. They are simply trying to lead their own lives but their transgressive impulses put them in conflict with society. In The Magdalene Sisters, that society is so brutal it can legitimately imprison women for a lifetime for the slightest sexual misdemeanour, real or imagined. In both films the politics of shame are overt and obvious: keep your house in order or suffer the consequences. The next film shows that our sex-negative covenants also operate in a far more insidious way. Described by film historian Michael Atkinson as “the greatest film about being gay,” this is Bernardo Bertolucci’s ravishing 1970 masterpiece The Conformist.