I missed 2013’s multi-Oscar nominee Philomena on the big screen, so I caught it on video, which led to roundhouse curses for having put it off in the first place. A wonderful film, well-deserving of its nods for Best Picture, Best Writing and Best Actress (Judi Dench), Philomena retells the story of an elderly Irish woman’s search for the illegitimate son she was forced to give up when she was young.
Though based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 nonfiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the movie was not the first to explore tales of various homes in 20th-century Catholic Ireland for “wayward” girls, institutions known as Magdalene Asylums, named for the famous (allegedly) fallen woman of the Gospels.
In 2002, Peter Mullan (a Scotsman known primarily for his acting) wrote and directed The Magdalene Sisters, a searing, fascinating drama that focused on four young women who, for various reasons, were “incarcerated” within the forbidding walls of one of these institutions. A prelude introduces three of the girls.
After being raped by a cousin (at a wedding, no less), Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is quickly shipped off by her father to the Magdalene Sisters — out of sight, out of mind. Rose (Dorothy Duffy), unmarried with a baby, gets the same treatment from her family: The baby is quickly whisked off by the good nuns for adoption. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is in an orphanage where she’s deemed too pretty and flirtatious for her own good; the solution is to be sent to one of the Magdalenes. The film’s fourth major character is Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a simple-minded young woman who is everyone’s victim, including one of the attending priests.
The ruling nun is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, in a role originally meant for Vanessa Redgrave). Cruel and vicious, she’s almost too despicable. The only glimpses of humanity we see in her are occasional moments when the camera catches her “possibly” struggling with a twinge of conscience. The other sisters are no better. One of the film’s more shocking moments depicts an older nun conferring with a younger one about the various young naked girls lined up before them, joking cruelly and explicitly about their various body parts.
Though it concludes on an affirmative note, The Magdalene Sisters is clearly meant to inspire anger and outrage. Not too surprisingly, the film’s level of accuracy was hotly criticized in the Catholic press and possibly undermined by independent sources as well. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the attitudes, at least of this particular time and place, ring uncomfortably true. And the film itself is a stellar piece of filmmaking, featuring some absolutely terrific performances from its ensemble cast.
An important note for interested viewers: Magdalene was strongly influenced by a 1998 UK TV documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, which had interviews, intercut with historical footage, with four Magdalene survivors. Included on DVD, their stories lend powerful support to their fictional counterparts.
Viewers should also be aware that Sex in a Cold Climate, like the feature film it inspired, has also been criticized for its exaggerated slant, which recalls the famous query in John’s Gospel — “What is truth?”