Now we turn our thoughts to the less than fun loving world of The Magdalene Sisters (2002), directed by Peter Mullen. The film's setting begins in the county of Dublin Ireland; the year is 1964. It is a film based on the reality of thousands of women, who worked within the Magdalene asylums.
The first series of scenes takes place at a wedding. A priest sings a beautiful and sensual ballad to the wedding couple while they hold hands and the guests smoke and listen intently to the beauty of the drumming and the priest's melodic voice. At this wedding, there is Margaret, the first represented of a set of girls who will soon become well acquainted with a Magdalene laundry asylum.
Margaret is adorable and simply pretty without being of any particular or unusual beauty. She wears a blue dress, a cardigan and a blue ribbon sits in her hair to off-set her simple, large, brown and trusting eyes. None of the women in the scene, are wearing makeup or at least very little of it, though they are dressed for a wedding.
Margaret speaks to a woman who sits next to her, and her manner of doing so evokes the sensibility of longstanding acquaintance between the two women; either as relatives, friends or both. Margaret's acquaintance is larger than her, a very pretty woman with blond hair and large dark eyes. Her hair is done up in a braid with flowers twisted through. The way her hair is done reveals a sentiment toward the beauty and natural rhythms of life that match with the words of the music; a song of green groves and lilies, down in the valley. The priest plays the drum as if he were making love to it.
The song ends, the bride and groom kiss and the audience applauds with fervor. Margaret is approached by Kevin, her cousin, who leads her upstairs, as he has told her he has something to show her. She follows him upstairs, honestly believing there must be some secret he has to show her. He of course, has nothing but begins to kiss her forcefully. Margaret pushes him away and slaps him, "What would your father say?" she tells him.
Kevin appears to admit defeat, and leaves but just as Margaret opens the door to leave after him, Kevin rams the door back open, hitting her strongly in the face with it and stunning her. Kevin proceeds to rape Margaret, while the music and dancing continue below. Then, Margaret comes downstairs after Kevin. He takes a drink of beer and watches the dancing. He is uncomfortable to watch, as his gaze is vacant and he stares too long at something the viewer cannot see. Margaret sits down and though she is watching the dancing too, she is obviously shaken up. Her plain, unmade face is tearful and lost seeming. Margaret doesn't know what to do.
Margaret's friend, with the flowers in her hair, approaches her and asks her questions. None of the spoken words are evident as all the viewer hears is the wedding music. The setting is very realistic in this manner. The viewer is a watcher of a scene, as it would be playing out in real life.
But, despite the lack of verbal testimony, it is obvious her friend is asking Margaret what happened and a tearful Margaret informs her of the rape. Her friend immediately confronts Kevin with outright anger and disgust. The friend then also tells the priest, Margaret's father, and another man, perhaps Kevin's father. And while Margaret looks on with embarrassment, sadness, anger and hope in her eyes; the male relatives and the priest escort Kevin into a separate room for questioning and then out of the house. Margaret looks, as if to say, "It is going to be o.k., right?"
What is odd is Margaret's mother's behavior. She coolly watches the scene, takes a sip of her drink and looks almost entertained. The mother does not get up to ask why her daughter is in tears nor why a cousin of Margaret's is being led by other men, out of the house. The mother simply sits and watches. It seems an almost unnatural reaction.
The next scene is of a car, driving up a country lane with Queen Anne's Lace on either side of the unpaved road. Margaret's father wakes her in a room she shares with a couple of siblings. Margaret quickly rises out of bed and puts on a simple and comforting skirt and sweater. She seems trusting though Margaret's brother does not look so certain of what will happen to her.
Her brother asks Margaret what is going on and she says, "I don't know," then nods toward her sleeping siblings, and tells her brother to hush. After going downstairs, Margaret is placed in the car, being driven by a priest. Her bag has already been packed by her parents. She looks angry, confused, even shattered. Her brother shouts out the window, "Da, where is Margaret going?" There is no reply as the car's engine tunes up and the vehicle pulls away.
The mother gazes out the window at the scene, her lips pursed yet smiling. She appears jealous of Margaret and glad to be rid of her. When her son asks, "Ma, where is Margaret going?" the mother winces, closing her eyes. Sweet, trusting, loyal and put together Margaret, was raised this whole time by parents who never really loved her. Margaret's brother loves her, but he is too young to do anything for her yet. He can only ask questions, that for now, go unanswered.
Then next, there is Bernadette, a beautiful girl, who also happens to be an orphan at St. Attracta. Bernadette, has raven dark hair, enormous eyes, arched eyebrows and full lips. She is awoken by two other orphan girls, who look to be of about nine years of age, demanding to use her brush. One of them farts in Bernadette's face, in order to obtain the item. "Jesus, how do you do it?" Bernadette asks the farter. Bernadette then gives in and pulls the brush, a beautiful item, made of silver and with a portrait on its back, out from under her pillow. "Here, take the damn thing," she tells the rambunctious pair.
Bernadette has her hair brushed by the little girls, who fight over whose turn it is to brush based on whether or not the count has gotten to twenty. One of them asks Bernadette whether it is a sin to be beautiful and Bernadette intelligently replies, "No, it is a sin to be vain," and cites the Virgin Mary as an example of beauty. Bernadette is down to earth and tolerant of the little girls who so want to brush her hair.
Later, on the school/orphanage's playground, Bernadette has attracted a group of teenage boy admirers, and though she is wasting her time talking to them, there is nothing wrong with doing so. Bernadette is the type to stand up for herself and she is just as curious as the boys are. The school principal, a very severe professional appearing woman tells the boys to move it or she will call the guards. But, as soon as the principal leaves, the boys flock right back into place by the fence and start paying attention to Bernadette. The bell chimes, and everyone returns back to their place except for Bernadette, who remains by the fence with the boys. The same two little girls appear and tug Bernadette toward the school.
Watching Bernadette this whole time, is the school principal and an unknown man, standing next to her. Next we see see the brush, underneath Bernadette's old bed, with other scattered belongings. The bed has been emptied and the mattress and sheets are all rolled up. The little girls rush toward the bed as is their usual morning routine, but this time stop and gaze at the scene a moment for it is clear Bernadette is gone. Then after their singular pause, they swoop in and one of the little orphan girls takes the brush. They do not seem to question that Bernadette is gone, which is not abnormal for their age.
The next series of scenes takes place at the maternity section of a hospital. We see a woman, still in bed, holding a newborn. This is Rose, who has just given birth to a newborn son. Rose begs her mother to just look at her grandson, as her mother sits, stiffly upright in a chair next to Rose's hospital bed.
Rose is a large girl, fair, with pale blue thoughtful eyes. Her mother stares ahead coldly. Rose, says she knows what she did is a sin, but surely the baby boy cannot be blamed for something he has nothing to do with. The mother is unmoved.
Rose is then called out into the hallway and with her father sitting next to them, she is coerced by a priest to sign paperwork, waiving all known rights to her son. Rose signs, but then quickly regrets the decision and fights her father, crying out, "I want my baby." The father appears to feel bad, but still keeps Rose from seeing her newborn son. A nurse, holding the baby, crisply walks away, down the hall with the priest next to her. They both ignore Rose's heartfelt cries, as does Rose's mother.
The three girls are taken to what is a combination of a convent and laundry asylum. They now wear shapeless long brown dresses. They no longer have any worldly possessions. No books, no journals, no personal brushes, no photographs. Nothing. Everything that is theirs belongs to the convent.
Rose, Bernadette and Margaret are paraded up a staircase and into Sister Bridget's, office room. Sr. Bridget, the head of the cloister, gives her newbie lecture to the young women as she counts bills with a rubber thimble, on her finger, that makes it easier to accurately shift through the vast amounts of money. Saint Mary Magdalene, was a sinner of the worst kind, Sr. Bridget informs the girls. Magdalene gave of her flesh to the lustful and depraved, in return for financial compensation. So, in the spirit of Magdalene, the philosophy is a simple one; here at the order of Magdalene the fallen may rectify their bodies and souls for lusts of passion and sins of the flesh through penitence and ritual labor. Salvation came for Magdalene by her forsaking all pleasures of the flesh and working beyond all human withstanding.
It is ignored that even if society did have a right to judge these women; Bernadette is a virgin, Margaret was raped, and Rose, though a sinner would have made an excellent mother all the same. The facts are the least of the knowledge base by which the Magdalene Asylums were run. Sr. Bridget, after her less than welcome speech, stands up and faces each girl individually. She reminds each of them directly how they are stupid, whoring outcasts. To Bernadette, she informs that she is acquaintances with St. Attracta's head principal and has heard all about Bernadette and her wayward manner. Sr. Bridget renames Rose, Patricia, as the asylum already has another Rose. Patricia is Rose's confirmation name.
After, Sr. Bridget has completely insulted the girls' sexuality, intelligence, social standing, as well as integrity at large; the three are quickly sent to work in the godforsaken laundry rooms. They are made to wear large blue aprons to cover their shapeless uniform dresses. And so, they work; scrubbing, ironing and sweating in silence. Sr. Bridget as part of her "welcome speech" also informs them the laundry is not just clothes and sheets but is the same as their souls and the girls must work to remove from the clothes, the stains they see before them and in doing so they are removing the stains from their very souls for all the whoring sins they ever committed throughout their short teenage lives.
Later that night, Patricia wakes up Bernadette and asks Bernadette to help her to the bathroom. Patricia is shuffling and hunched. Once they get to the bathroom, Bernadette cups her hands under the running faucet and crouches down to have Patricia drink from her enclosed hands. Patricia says it is so painful and she is probably going to faint, then she sinks to the ground. Bernadette who had never been pregnant and had never been close to anyone who ever was so, had no advice to give Patricia.
Another woman comes in to pee, and asks Patricia if her milk is stuck. Patricia says she doesn't know but the pain is terrible. The girl, on the toilet tells Patricia not to touch her breasts because if Patricia does, she will start leaking, and the nuns go crazy if anyone leaks, so it is best to take the pain that should be gone in a couple days.
Bernadette helps Patricia back to bed and there is nothing more to be done. The girl, also warns both Bernadette and Patricia not to talk or be friendly for the nuns will be enraged if they catch the girls conversing in any manner for any reason. The next morning, bright and early before breakfast all the asylum girls are awoken by an obnoxiously perky nun who demands to know if any of them saw Una O'Connor leave or heard anything during the night. It has to be before six am and the girls stand there in their bedclothes, either unable or unwilling to answer.
The girls are then piled into two lines and down the long hallway, following a nun to breakfast they go. While sneaking in breakfast the same girl, who warned Bernadette and Patricia about talking, recites the daily morning prayer. She tumbles over some of the words and one wonders as to her level of education.
Prayers are recited for most, if not all of breakfast. The girls eat, what looks like some sort of yogurt or porridge. While the nuns have deli meats and fresh bread. The nuns argue in whispers over what happened to Una O'Connor.
The day is spent in the sweat shop of a laundry in silence, except for Crispina, a homely woman who has some sort of speech or learning disability, either organically or through abuse. An old woman, Katie, still wearing the brown dress she probably initially donned as a young girl, yells at the girls for talking. Crispina keeps on chatting, no matter what it seems. Though, no talking among the inmates is allowed at the laundry. Probably to keep them from sharing information or forming bonds.
Most of the girls do not know each others' names. (In reality probably no one ever really knew some of the girls' names after awhile. Many if not most, who remained in the laundry for life, were buried sans names and in unmarked graves.) They are never introduced to each other, they are just thrown into work.
Crispina has a son, her sister brings to the asylum, though of course not actually within the asylum, to visit. The sister, with her nephew stand at the back gates and sometimes, when there is laundry to be hung outdoors to dry, Crispina gets to see her son. She loves her son and exclaims, "Isn't he the biggest boy you've ever seen?" to Patricia. Crispina's son is two and when he comes Crispina pulls out a Saint Christopher medal so she can talk to the boy, as he holds the same type of medal.
(In reality, many "Magdalenes" worked next to the orphanages where their bastard children had been placed and women would beg to see their children. Just to know what the child looked like. Some Magdalenes would spend much of their lives working next to their child and would never get to see him or her.)
Later that night, Margaret puts on her day dress under her nightdress and prepares to sneak out on her own but hears shouting and noise outside the locked door, so she shuffles back into bed and throws the covers back over herself. Margaret watches as the lights go on and Una O'Connor, her face bloodied, is dragged back in by her father. Una screams that she hates it there, and the father returns to beat her with his belt, as Una hides under the blankets in her bed.
Una's father then tells her while holding her face close to his, that she doesn't have a mother or a father anymore. He blames Una for killing them both. Sr. Bridget, in her nightcap, tells the father to leave. It's odd to see Sr. Bridget act as if she had compassion, no matter how little.
The next day, Bernadette and Crispina end up in Sr. Bridget's office. Bernadette for demanding to see Sr. Bridget, after a working boy, Brendan, who came to collect the laundry asks her to suck his cock and Crispina, for asking a nun the symbolic name for the use of her St. Christopher medallion. The word being, "telephone."
Sr. Bridget is in the process of shaving Una's head, to keep her from running away again. Una tries to pick up the pieces of her own hair, causing Sr. Bridget to ask Una if she has lost her mind, as her hair is no good to her anymore. It is to be sold and the money will go to the black babies, Sr. Bridget states.
(Perhaps Sr. Bridget is telling the truth but I doubt it. There were so few black babies in Ireland in the 1960s. The nuns probably sold the hair and kept the money.)
Bernadette wants to know why she is there in the first place, as she has never been with a boy. Sr. Bridget informs her that wanting to be with a boy and being with one are the same thing and since Bernadette shows interest in boys she is automatically a sinner. And beside, Bernadette is stupid, according to Sr. Bridget, and therefore it is more likely for boys to get their fingers inside of her the same as with Crispina.
Crispina agrees, though she admits she was not listening, which could be a sign of lack of intelligence or a simple reflection of her environment(or both); as it really does not make much of a difference if Crispina listens or not, they are all still stuck there for invisible reasons. Sr. Bridget switches Bernadette and Crispina on the back of the legs for their insolence. Bernadette decides that if she is a rotten whore as a virgin, she might as well sell herself to get out of there. The next day Bernadette gives Brendan, a look at what she has in exchange for him to come later that night with the key to let her out.
Katie, the simple minded silencer, witnesses the scene and runs, threatening to tell the nuns. Bernadette chases after Katie and they get involved in a dramatic moral argument. Bernadette is arguing with Katie as an adult would bargain with a child. Bernadette tells Katie that if Katie tells the nuns, then Brendan will never marry her, and if he doesn't marry her, then Katie will have committed a sin on both their parts. Katie informs Bernadette, that if she does tell the nuns, then Bernadette will be punished most severely, kept by the nuns forever and all her sins will be erased by the punishment. Bernadette counters by telling Katie, that if Katie rats she will kill herself and both of them will go straight to hell, as suicide is a huge mortal (as compared to venial) sin.
Katie does not tell and Brendan actually does come by himself on his bike at night. He opens the door and then shuts it again, nervously jiggling the key, waiting for Bernadette to come. She has to break out of the dorm, they are locked in and get down multiple flights of stairs. The convent is huge. Brendan tells himself, that it is madness, what they are doing, and just before Bernadette gets to the door, he changes his mind and locks it.
Through the closed, thick, wooden door Brendan tells Bernadette that he has changed his mind and that he does not even know her name. "Bernadette. My name is Bernadette!" But it is too late. Brendon tells her, that his brother was put in jail for a term of six years for stealing apples from the nuns. What would they do to him if he were caught letting Bernadette out? He says he is sorry but he cannot. Bernadette loses it and starts chipping at the door with an iron bar, all in vain, as the nuns have come and are watching her. She turns toward them, with the bar in her hands, temporarily at a loss for what to do. Though, once captured by the nuns, Bernadette keeps on fighting. She is bloodied as they chop off her hair.
Bernadette, Crispina, Patricia, Margaret, as well as the other girls have to endure a continuous lonely and grueling life at the Magdalene laundry while the nuns rake in the money. Before tea the girls jog, naked, in silence, in front of two of the nuns. The nuns decide which girl has the smallest breasts, the biggest breasts, the biggest bottom and the hairiest pubic region. Crispina is the hairiest and when given this honor directly and verbally by one of the nuns, Crispina begins to cry. The girls gaze at the nuns as if they are executors, (which they really rather are). The nun honestly does not seem to understand why Crispina is crying. The nun tells her, "You've won. It's a game."
There are constant hints that the nuns did not begin as total abusive psychos. It is indicative they became this way over time. The girls are born into a culture of sin and guilt. (The Catholic Church ruled and contraception was banned.) A person is either an abuser or victim. There seems little room for anything else. The world is as black and white as the robes and head-dresses of the nuns.
The seasons go by and in the late spring/summer Father Fitzroy, the priest who says mass and hears confession at the convent, is caught enjoying a blow job from the simple Crispina, by Margaret, who stops to tie a shoe and sees them through a window. Margaret tells Crispina, "He is not a man of God." Crispina soaks her nightdress before bed one evening and tries to die of the flu. The ever sweet Margaret takes care of her, but in falling from her illness, Crispina loses her St. Christopher. Margaret promises Crispina she will find the medal. It is Bernadette who has it, as she found it on a table.
Bernadette would have given it back but she decides Crispina is probably not going to make it anyway, and so it is best to just finish her off. So Bernadette keeps the medal. Margaret, spurred on by accusations from Crispina goes through Bernadette's few items and finds the medal. The two, Bernadette and Margaret, get into a fight over it, as the medal is the one real thing Crispina has. Even after receiving the medal Crispina tries to kill herself, by hanging with sheets. Margaret catches her and the girls are able to lower Crispina down in time. Margaret asks Crispina, "Why would you want to kill yourself?"
"Jesus, that's a stupid thing to ask in this place," retorts a watchful Bernadette, who further says she does not know why Margaret is bothering to save Crispina. Each girl reacts differently to being in that place. Bernadette is aggressive and realistic to the point where she becomes a bully herself. Margaret is aggressively protective and sweet, which is why she butts heads with Bernadette. Patricia is helpful and caring wherever she can be. Crispina seems to know her odds and is losing it. Una goes from escapee to nun to be, and the system carries on.
Margaret is eventually rescued by her brother. Bernadette realizes that unless she gets out, she will become just as abusive as the nuns. The tolerant girl who got her hair brushed at the orphanage is disappearing. Bernadette breaks free with Patricia's help.
Patricia does find her son, 33 years after he was taken from her. Bernadette becomes a hairdresser. Crispina is the only one who did not make it, to have her own life. Her real name was Harriet, and after being placed in an insane asylum, she died of anorexia at the age of 24.
And so, I have not relayed all the scenes in exact order, but give much of a thorough and accurate portrayal of the film as is fitting. And of the women who saw the film, the remaining Magdalene laundry survivors, according to reports online, said the reality was far worse. "Tragically, it seems that there may indeed be truth to these charges. While The Magdalene Sisters is a work of fiction, the abuses it depicts are allegedly based on credible survivor accounts of life in the Magdalene institutions, which are said to have taken in as many as 30,000 women between their inception in the 1880s and their final closing in 1996. In fact, there are reports that, according to some survivors, the abuses depicted in The Magdalene Sisters actually fall short of the worst that really happened, and the director himself has commented that he refrained from recreating the most terrible reported incidents for fear of overwhelming and alienating the audience." -Steven D. Greydanus
The director, Mullen, is reported to have been inspired to create the film after watching, Sex in a Cold Climate, a documentary depicting the conditions within the walls of such places. (And please; let this writing not be a reflection of nuns as a whole. Almost every nun I have known has been incredibly sweet and sincere. I was raised as Roman Catholic). It is more a revelation of the abuses that come when any given group has absolute power within the bounds of a confined world.
By Sarah Bahl