Already suffering from a self-inflicted black eye, it’s not surprising that the Catholic Church has denounced “The Magdalene Sisters,” a harrowing portrait of church sanctioned cruelty. Vividly written and directed by actor Peter Mullan, “The Magdalene Sisters” isn’t really entertainment but an indictment against an institution that is seemingly above the law and more than willing to dispense their own brand of justice.

Mullan, working with a cast of talented yet unknown faces, shines a harsh light on the Sisters of Mercy, Irish nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundries, convents that until their closing were notorious for their cruel and unusual punishment. Set in 1964, “The Magdalene Sisters” examines the lives of three women, who for various moral reasons, have been sentenced to indefinite terms at Magdalene. Imagine living in a society that tosses away a young woman because she was either raped, had a baby out of wedlock, or just thought about being with boy.

It might seem archaic, but it is the same religious fervor that is being enforced today in many parts of the world, which makes the events in “The Magdalene Sisters” all the more chilling. It doesn’t take long before we realize that Mullan is biased in his view, but it’s a view that is backed by fact. He sides with the prisoners, victims of church prejudice or unfortunate circumstance, turning the sisters who run Magdalene into Ken Kesey-inspired monsters.

“The Magdalene Sisters” is a tough film to watch, as it deals with the sacrifice of human dignity and spirit by the very people who should have nurtured both. These aren’t the sweet nuns from “Sister Act,” but exaggerated versions of those knuckle-cracking sisters from parochial school. To them, there is only right and wrong, no middle ground, and what ever the church says goes.

Into this madhouse arrive three very different young women: Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who was raped by a cousin during a family wedding, an act that quickly transforms her into a black sheep; Rose (Dorothy Duff), an unwed mother tricked by a priest into giving up her son, and then banished by her humiliated parents to the convent; and Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan whose only crime is being pretty.

Riding shotgun over the convent is Commandant, I mean Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a bulldog of a woman who enjoys humiliating and degrading the women in her charge. Like all of the nuns at Magdalene, Sister Bridget has little or no compassion for the sinners of the world. She uses religion and church convictions to treat the women like slaves, betraying any real sense of moral decency. As heavy drama, “The Magdalene Sisters” is steep in irony. The real criminals are those in charge.

Not that the three central women are completely innocent, they’re just not as evil as their captors. If the church really cared about these castaways, they would have offered them sanctuary rather than an indefinite sentence in hell, where escape is virtually impossible. To that end, Mullan evokes the spirit of prisoner of war movies, with Bernadette as the desperate Cooler King.

Mullan is blessed with a cast that carries the film’s enormous weight, actresses who embody the hearts and souls of the characters they play. Duff is the most sympathetic, a true victim who sees a light at the end of her very dark, long tunnel. The moments surrounding her rape, and how her family deals with it, are truly heartbreaking. McEwan delivers a taut, nerves of steel performance as Sister Bridget, a woman who not only understands her position of power, but revels in it.

Like Bruce Beresford’s “Evelyn,” starring Pierce Brosnan, “The Magdalene Sisters” works best as a cautionary tale about how unchecked power can destroy lives. Mullan may be pointing fingers, but not without provocation. The Catholic Church may not like the way they’re portrayed in “The Magdalene Sisters,” but if you’re going to do the crime, you should be willing to do the time.


Sanctioned cruelty doesn’t come out in wash


Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray. Directed by Peter Mullan. Rated R. 119 Minutes.


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