Until 1996, the Irish branch of the Roman Catholic Church sent more than 30,000 "fallen women" -- meaning prostitutes, single mothers, social activists, the poor and the orphaned -- to Dickensian forced-labor camps called Magdalene asylums. Speaking was not allowed, and food consisted of foul gruel. Each day was a grind of backbreaking work in the for-profit laundries, uneasy sleep in hard-bed barracks and punishment under the watch of the sadistic Sisters of Mercy. The unfortunate inmates sometimes lived out their entire lives inside institution walls.
Director/writer Peter Mullan's heartfelt "The Magdalene Sisters" is a righteous indictment of this long-obscure atrocity. But its characters are unnecessarily reductive representatives of innocence and evil, with scant interest devoted to the gray areas that inform the most awful actions.
The movie's opening sequence is the first in a series of miscalculations that are to recur throughout the film. At a 1964 Dublin wedding, a priest (accompanied by a group of Gaelic musicians) pounds on a drum with mounting, creepy ecstasy. Mullan crosscuts to images of a young woman, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), being raped by her cousin, to shots of crucifixes and then to pious local menfolk. As the music climaxes, it fairly well looks as if the priest will do the same.
After this blunt hammering of the film's themes, Margaret is sent packing by her never-seen parents to a cold, miserable Magdalene asylum run by queen bitch Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, easily out-eviling Louise Fletcher's "Nurse Ratched"). We then journey through several overly compressed years in the spiritual charnel house, as seen through the eyes of two other victims: Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a spirited minx imprisoned for being attractive and looking at boys; and Rose (Dorothy Duffy), damned to the asylum when she conceives a child outside of wedlock.
The film achieves its first caveat-free fine moment when two girls attempt to escape. One eventually succeeds, but the other gives in to long-term Stockholm syndrome: Believing herself unable to function in the real world, she turns back to the asylum to finish her life sentence. In between, the film is a relentless horror-show litany of church-sanctioned awfulness. Whippings, starvation, isolation -- the institution spares no effort to turn its charges into hopeless, scripture-quoting automatons. (The Vatican has condemned the film.)
How does one add nuance to such a tale of indisputable power abuse? Mullan, though a promising director (and an accomplished actor seen in "The Claim" and "Trainspotting"), never finds out. With a tendency for overunderlining scenes and a too-sober tone, he allows the film's events to slide dangerously close to camp. Two particularly demented nuns round up the girls for an accounting of their sins, which necessitates the girls stripping until starkers. As the nuns cackle with Sapphic intent, and the roving camera shows all, you could be excused for thinking you had stumbled in on a screening of "Catholic Teen Love Slaves."
Overstatement again undermines the proceedings with the appearance of Crispina (Eileen Walsh), an inmate who, under Mullan's micromanaged direction, starts out as a sweet simpleton but quickly devolves into a wild-eyed, drooling lunatic right out of "The Snake Pit." On the other hand, the incredibly skilled Noone allows her Bernadette a recurring strain of nastiness without betraying the character's core decency. The film's second triumph comes when Bernadette tends to a dying woman who earlier went mad and then betrayed her. Bernadette mocks the pitiful old woman, but affords her a final, delicate kiss.
It would have helped if Mullan had explored something beyond blunt (if repressed) sexual power as a motivation for his cruel nuns and pompous clergy. More important, we never learn why the girls' parents are so eagerly complicit in their children's doom.
Still, it isn't so much Mullan's rookie-director gaffes that rob the film of its aggregate power, as it is a case of current events outperforming historic heinousness. Many of us have become numbed by the Catholic Church's dumfounding support of serial child-rapist priests, its traditional limits on women's rights and its recent anti-gay spew. And our reaction to this film, like so many other more important matters, suffers for it.