Saturday, November 23, 2013


Philomenathe latest Judi Dench vehicle made its U.S. debut this week. As I understand it, the story revolves around an elderly Irish Catholic woman’s search to find the child she was forced to give up for adoption some fifty years earlier, while being incarcerated in one of a handful of convents that served as asylums for “fallen women”.

Similar prisonsknown as the Magdalene Laundries existed throughout the U.K. over a period of more than fifty years. As they fell under the auspices of the Catholic Church, these institutions were exempt from the country’s court system, and accompanying rules and regulations. With no legal recourse, or chance to refute the charges against them, the condemned girls (by some estimates, as many as 30,000 of them) would spend the better part of their lives in these hell-holes, for ‘crimes’ that ranged from being too pretty to having a child out of wedlock.

I was totally unaware that such places existed until I happened upon Scottish writer/ director Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters. Ironically, I was just about to post this review when news of the Dench piece reached our shores. Timing– as they say – is everything, and so – just in time for Dame Dench’s Philomena, comes my take on two other not-to-be-missed films that center around the ‘laundries’.

Based on real-life documented cases, places and events, Mullan’s movie takes place in Ireland in 1964. Over the course of the next 119 minutes, we will follow four teenage girls, as their lives change literally, inexplicably and horrifically overnight.

As the film opens, we find ourselves at a family wedding reception at a local restaurant or hall in County Dublin, Ireland.It’s a loud and joyous affair, where one has to raise his voice far above the music and chatter to be heard. As the wedding guests partake in the merriment, a young school girl by the name of Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is lured to an upstairs room by a cousin, under the pretext of being told a secret. Once alone, he throws her to the floor and rapes her, while as the music below plays on.

Shortly thereafter, he returns to the party as if nothing has happened, but she is understandably distraught, and confides in a friend, who, with all good intentions, tells her father, who tells her to tell Margaret's father, who, after hearing the news, runs not to Margaret, but to the parish priest. As they talk in hushed tones behind closed doors, Margaret sits alone, frightened and unconsoled.  Moments later, we see the boy hurridly led out of the buidling by his father.

The following morning, shortly before sunrise, Margaret is harshly awakened by her father. Barging into the bedroom she shares with a younger sister, he stands before his daughter with a cold cold heart. "You - get up. Get up!" he commands. "Get dressed. Hurry up. I want you downstairs!"
Not long after this, the parish priest arrives, whisking her away to the Magdalene Laundries, as her younger brother watches despairingly from an upstairs window.

Cut to the girl's dormitory of a Catholic orphanage, where a group of young girls fuss over who gets to brush an older girl's hair. Her name is Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone), and she is a young and pretty thing in her mid-teens, full of life, despite the cards she has been dealt.

The following day, as she stands in the institution's school yard, the nuns observe her innocently flirting with some school boys perched on an upper level behind an iron fence. That night, the younger girls return to their dormatory, only to find Bernadette's bed stripped, aand all traces of her gone. Deemed too pretty and flirty for her own good, she too has been banished to the Magdalene Laundries in order to save her soul.

We meet Rose (Dorothy Duffy) in a maternity ward, just hours after she has given birth (out of wedlock) to a baby boy. Her mother sits stoically beside her bed, refusing to acknowledge either the baby or his mother. Outside her door, and unbeknnownst to Rose, her father is finalizing arrangements that will result in the relinquishing of her child and her freedom. Before nightfall, she will join the other girls as they are herded down the convent’s endless hallways, up the stairs, and ultimately into the office of the Mother Superior.  
As we soon learn, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) runs the asylum (their word, not mine) as if it was a forced labor camp. “Our philosophy is a simple one” she tells them in a flat, but eerily sinister tone, “Through the powers of prayer, the fallen may find their way back to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” She goes on to explain that like Mary Magdalene the convent’s patron saint and “a sinner of the worst kind”, they too will find their way as she did, by “denying herself all pleasure of the flesh, including food and sleep, working beyond endurance…”

This so-called philosophy allows the nuns to subject the girls to whatever manner of abuse they wish, all in the name of redemption. Like hundreds of girls before them, Margaret, Rose and Bernadette will be treated as slaves, their hair, along with any outside communication– cut off, personal possessions confiscated, and free time abolished. Condemned to a life of indefinite servitude, they will live out their days there unless claimed by the very relatives who shunned them.

While there are scenes outside the convent’s walls – most notably in the first moments of the film, it is the institution and its daily routine that serves as a backdrop to the girls’ individual story lines. In an endless string of nameless days, they rise early and work late, hand-washing, scrubbing and ironing the sisters’, priests’ and inmates’ laundry until their hands bleed, and their bodies ache. Far from compassionate, the nuns seem to relish humiliating, harassing and berating their charges, as they strip away any hope or sense of self. Adding to the misery are the decidedly unholy demands of visiting priests, as the sisters turn a blind eye.

Over the course of the movie we are introduced to some of the other inmates, including the long-suffering and emotionally-damaged Crispina (Eileen Walsh). Like Rose, she too gave birth to a child she will never know – a child who is being raised by Crispina’s compassionate sister, Rebecca.  As convent rules forbid any contact with the outside world, Crispina has never had the chance to hold her child – or even see him, save for a few bitter-sweet clandestine moments when Rebecca and the boy stand in the shadows of the laundry’s back gate. Only then, if and when the nuns are preoccupied, can they stand close enough to give Crispina a clear but long-distance view of her son as she hangs the convent’s laundry out to dry.

Walsh’s performance as the tragically- doomed long-time resident, is both heart-wrenching and Oscar-worthy. McEwan as Sister Bridget, turns in an equally powerful performance, but then, all of the actors more than hold their own.

What makes Mullan's film all the more powerful is the fact that the real-life laundries and the abuse they fostered, went on not for days or months, but decades. Even more astounding, the last of these institutions didn’t close its doors until 1996 – less than twenty years ago! It’s hard to believe that at a time when the women’s rights movement was surging ahead in many areas of the world, this kind of inhumane treatment still existed – not in a third world, primitive civilization –but the United Kingdom.   

Rent or buy the DVD, and you’ll find a documentary in the Special Features section called Sex in a Cold Climate. The perfect companion piece; it introduces you to some of the women on whom Mullan’s film is based, along with other well-documented accounts of what went on inside the Magdalene Laundries. Together they paint a picture of one of the darkest hours in Irish- Catholic history.

While both of these films are hard to watch, they are important in the same way that Schindler’s List and other films that deal with people who have been imprisoned and/or mentally and physically abused for all the wrong reasons is important. With Judi Dench’s Philomena eliciting rave reviews from the world’s toughest critics, you might wonder if you really "need" to see these older and smaller films. I suppose that on some level it’s like asking yourself if you need to see more than one movie about the Civil War, or the Great Depression. The fact is, each one of these films has a different tale to tell; presented in a different way, by a different writer, director, cast and crew. 

A final note: While none of these films should be taken as an indictment of the Catholic Church as a whole, or the thousands of nuns and other clergy who have selflessly devoted their lives to doing God’s work,  the laundries are a part of our overall history, and as Edmund Burke, George Santayana, Virgil and others have noted in one form or another, “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” For that reason alone, I urge you to see at least one of them.