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The Magdalene Sisters (July 30/03)

There's no denying that The Magdalene Sisters deals with a very important subject - up until recently, Catholic girls were sent to hard-labor laundries to atone for their supposed sins - but the problem is, the film never really goes anywhere beyond its initial premise. Writer/director Peter Mullan clearly feels very strongly about this subject, but his lack of objectivity prevents the film from becoming more than just a one-sided tirade.

As the film opens, we meet our three protagonists and discover why each has been sent to the laundry - Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), because she was raped; Rose (Dorothy Duffy), for having a baby out of wedlock; and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), simply because she likes to flirt with boys. Upon arriving, they meet the sinister Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), an evil nun who seems to delight in humiliating her new charges (she immediately accuses two of them of being slow). As the girls become acclimatized to their new surroundings, they begin to make friends - most notably with the dim-witted Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a likeable simpleton who just wants to see the baby she was forced to give up.

Parts of The Magdalene Sisters are quite compelling and well done, including the first 15-minutes or so (featuring the introduction of the three women), to the point that the film remains watchable even when it becomes tiresome. It helps that all the roles have been filled by superb actresses, giving the movie an air of realism. What's even more surprising is that The Magdalene Sisters marks the film debuts of Noone and Duff, both of whom give convincingly raw performances. A big part of the film's success, acting wise, no doubt belongs to Mullan - an actor himself. He proves to be adept at eliciting honest performances out of his actresses, and does a nice job of keeping over-the-top histrionics to a minimum (not an easy feat, when you consider the material).

But the one-note nature of the screenplay eventually becomes overwhelming, to the point where it becomes almost impossible to care about the plight of these three girls. Aside from the aforementioned Sister Bridget, each of the nuns in The Magdalene Sisters takes pleasure in tormenting (both mentally and physically) the various girls that have been sent to the laundry. Since this is based on true events, presumably everything that Mullan shows us actually happened at one point or another - but were there not any sympathetic nuns? It doesn't seem entirely plausible that there wouldn't be a single nun that saw these girls as victims and tried to help them. Instead, we're treated to sequence after sequence of nuns forcing the girls to strip and making fun of their bodies (for example).

The film never quite recovers from Mullan's heavy hand, and aside from a semi-intriguing last 15-minutes, The Magdalene Sisters winds up a dull lecture. The performances are incredible, but they're just not enough to warrant a recommendation.

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