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The Magdalene Sisters

Movie poster
Directed by Peter Mullan
Produced by Frances Higson
Written by Peter Mullan
Starring Anne-Marie Duff
Nora Jane Noone
Dorothy Duffy
Geraldine McEwan
Eileen Walsh
Music by Craig Armstrong
Cinematography Nigel Willoughby
Distributed by Magna Pacific
Release date(s) 30 August 2002 (2002-08-30) (Venice)
02002-10-25 25 October 2002 Ireland)
02003-02-21 21 February 2003
(United Kingdom)
Running time 119 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Gross revenue $20,957,001[1]

The Magdalene Sisters is a 2002 film written and directed by Peter Mullan about teenage girls who were sent to Magdalene Asylums, otherwise known as the 'Magdalen Laundries': homes for women who were labeled as "fallen" by their families or society (though the film itself questions this). The homes were maintained by individual religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

Peter Mullan has remarked that the film was initially made because victims of Magdalene Asylums had received no closure in the form of recognition, compensation, or apology, and many remained lifelong devout Catholics.[2] Former Magdalen inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the reality of the Magdalene Asylums was much worse than depicted in the film.[3] In May, 2009, an Irish government Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released a 2000 page report (the "Ryan report") detailing thousands of cases of often horrific abuse in many schools, although the scope of the investigation excluded the Magdalene Asylums.[4]



In 1964 Ireland, the timeframe of the film, 'fallen' women were considered sinners who needed to be redeemed. The film follows the stories of four young women - Margaret (raped by her cousin), Rose (unmarried mother), Bernadette (too beautiful and coquettish) and Crispina (mentally-handicapped single mother) - who are all forced by their families or caretakers into the Magdalene Asylum.

The film details the disastrous lives of the four girls whilst they are inmates of the laundries, portraying their harsh daily regimen, their squalid living conditions and the oppressive nature of the Catholic faith at the time.

Each woman suffers unspeakable cruelty and violence from the fictional Mother Superior, Sister Bridget, despite her appearance and outward demeanour. She is characterized as sadistic and almost inhuman at times, as conveyed through her merciless beating of Rose in full view of Bernadette, or when she mockingly laughs at Una as she hopelessly clutches at her fallen hair locks. It is never made explicit whether Sister Bridget needlessly behaves tyrannically or if she earnestly believes her actions necessary in the eyes of God (it could also be seen as internalised misogyny).

The film also criticises the hypocrisy and corruption within the staff of the laundries, but it also intimates at the natures of the relationship between church and state in post-colonial Ireland. Sister Bridget relishes the money the business receives and it is suggested that little of it is distributed appropriately. Those who liken themselves to Mary Magdalene, who deprived herself of all pleasures of the flesh, even food and drink, eat hearty breakfasts of buttered toast and bacon while the working women subsist on oatmeal. In one particularly humiliating scene, the women are forced to stand naked in a line after taking a communal shower. The nuns then hold a "contest" on who has the most pubic hair, biggest bottom, biggest breasts and more. The corruption of the resident priest is made very clear through his fornication with Crispina.

Three of the girls are shown, to some extent, to triumph over their situation and their captors. Margaret, although she is allowed to leave by the intervention of her younger brother, does not leave the asylum without leaving her mark. When she deliberately asks Sister Bridget to step aside for her to freely pass, and being sharply shot down, Margaret falls to her knees in prayer. The Mother Superior is so surprised, she only moves past her after the Bishop tells her to come along. Bernadette and Rose finally decide to escape together, trashing Sister Bridget's study in search for the key to the asylum door and engaging her in a suspenseful confrontation. The two girls escape her clutches and are helped to return to the real world by a sympathetic relative, their story optimistically ending when they board a coach bound for the ferry to Liverpool. Crispina's end, however, is not a happy one; she spends the rest of her days in a mental institution where she dies of anorexia at age 24.

The epilogue to the film gives a brief description of the lives of four of the inmates after the girls leave the asylum by the late 1960s but according to one source these "biographical details" are fictitious.[1] They are actually details of real women interviewed who "inspired" the characters in the film, even though the stories in the film were fictionalized and varied substantially from the true stories (for example, the real women did not all know each other, and one, not herself a Magdalene, was raised in an orphanage associated with an adjoining Magdalene laundry). It is noted that the last Magdalene asylum closed in 1996.


  • Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff): Margaret is sent to the laundry after being raped by her cousin at a family wedding. She takes Crispina under her wing, despite Crispina being the longer-serving inmate, and tries to ensure Crispina's safety, although her efforts sometimes unwittingly cause harsh consequences for Crispina. Margaret cares very much for her friend and promises to find Crispina's holy St Christopher pendant after it goes missing. After catching a glimpse of Father Fitzroy having Una O'Connor fellate him, she mixes poison ivy in with his personal laundry that make him break out in a rash, as an act of revenge. In one scene, she succeeds in escaping, but realizes that she has no way of surviving outside the asylum and turns back to the asylum. She is eventually freed when her younger brother comes to collect her four years after her incarceration in the asylum.
  • Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone): Bernadette is a beautiful teenage orphan who is sent to the Magdalene Laundry because she is flirtatious with the boys at the orphanage. However, Bernadette, unlike the other three girls, is still a virgin. Bernadette makes a disastrous attempt to escape from the asylum shortly after she arrives and has her hair cut off in punishment. She remains the most rebellious and headstrong of the girls, making her hatred for the asylum clearly felt. She is ultimately good, helping the other girls and, in one scene, momentarily relinquishes her stony attitude when the laundry overseer dies, kissing her on the forehead. She eventually escapes the asylum with Rose after wrestling for the key with Bridget.
  • Rose/Patricia (Dorothy Duffy): Rose finds herself in the laundry after having a baby out of wedlock. She is prepared to work hard for the sins she has committed so she may see her son again one day. Sister Bridget renames her 'Patricia' because the laundry already has a girl named Rose. Rose becomes increasingly resentful of her lack of freedom after she is denied sending her son a birthday card. After she is severely beaten by Sister Bridget for talking to Crispina's sister and son through the gate, she agrees to escape with Bernadette. She symbolically regains her identity by reverting to her birth name at the end, telling the woman: "My name is Rose." The movie later states that she is reunited with her son after years of searching.
  • Harriet/Crispina (Eileen Walsh): Crispina's real name is Harriet; she was given her laundry name - for obscure reasons: she reveals it means 'curly-haired girl', which she is not - by one of the nuns. She was sent to the laundry for giving birth to a child out of wedlock. She is poorly educated and mentally disabled, sometimes doing or saying strange things, and tries to commit suicide after losing her St Christopher necklace. Crispina believes she deserves the treatment she receives in the laundry. She puts her faith in a St Christopher pendant she thinks is a 'holy telephone', through which she can communicate with her sister and her son.[2]. She is later cruelly abducted from the Asylum and put in a mental institution with the assistance of the Nuns against her will. This is her punishment for very publicly and vocally accusing Father Fitzroy of being a hypocrite, proclaiming loudly and repeatedly "You are not a man of God" during an outdoor religious mass. In this dramatic scene, she does so as Father Fitzroy he disrobes before the eyes of all present as he acutely suffers from rash caused by Margaret's revengeful poisoning of his garments. Crispina is ultimately shown in a mental institution's cell in a psychotic state. The movie states she later dies in the mental institution.
  • Una O'Connor (Mary Murray): Una is first mentioned as having run away, and next appears being dragged back into the dormitory by her hair by her father, who angrily thrashes her, calls her a "slut" and warns her never to come home. It is suggested that she was sent to the asylum for having premarital sex or a baby out of wedlock. Una later has all her hair cut off by Sister Bridget to discourage her from escaping again. Sister Bridget chuckled at her that all her hair is useless. After this episode, Una is quickly broken down by the nuns and it is announced that she has petitioned to take Holy Orders and become a nun herself. It is insinuated that Father Fitzroy is involved in her petition.
  • Sister Bridget, Mother Superior: (Geraldine McEwan) The sadistic and greedy Sister Bridget is soft-spoken and gentle-faced, but commits acts of unbelievable cruelty. Money-hungry, she relishes counting the profits from the laundry. She often punishes the girls through humiliating acts; in one scene she is cutting off Una's hair nonchalantly as she reprimands Bernadette and Crispina for talking out of turn. In another scene she violently attacks Rose.
  • Sister Jude (Frances Healy), Sister Clementine (Eithne McGuinness) and Sister Augusta (Phyllis MacMahon) also abuse and humiliate their charges.
  • Father Fitzroy (Daniel Costello) sexually abuses Crispina, who is subsequently committed to an insane asylum to silence her accusations.

Critical reception

The film received very positive reviews from critics. As of 25 October 2008, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 90% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 144 reviews.[5] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 83 out of 100, based on 38 reviews — indicating "universal acclaim".[6] This made it the twentieth best reviewed film of the year.[7] The film appeared on several US critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2003.[8]

The film also received critical acclaim when it was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, culminating with Peter Mullan taking home the festival's highest prize the Golden Lion.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Interview with Peter Mullan". Movie Chicks. Retrieved 2008-03-07. "It was initially because it was unfinished. They hadn't received any recognition, they hadn't received any compensation, and they hadn't been given an apology. And they remained devout Catholics. So initially, it was as a means to get their story in the public domain." 
  3. ^ "In God's Name". The Guardian. February 7, 2003.,4120,890489,00.html. Retrieved 2008-03-07. ""It was worse in the Magdalenes, much worse than what you see. I don't like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns," says McDonagh, who spent five years in one in Galway after being molested by a neighbour. She was spirited away early one morning by a priest and told she had "brought shame on her family"." 
  4. ^ "New York Times article "Report Details Abuses in Irish Reformatories"". 
  5. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2008-10-25. 
  6. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters (2003): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-10-25. 
  7. ^ "The Best-Reviewed Movies of 2003". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-10-25. 
  8. ^ "Metacritic: 2003 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-10-25. 

External links

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