Director: Peter Mullan.
Screenplay: Peter Mullan.
Starring: Geraldine McEwan, Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff, Dorothy Duffy, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray, Britta Smith, Frances Healy, Rebecca Walsh, Eamonn Owens, Eithne McGuinness, Phyllis McMahon, Sean Mackin, Stephen McCole, Peter Mullan.
In 1998, writer/director Peter Mullan made his feature film debut with the blackly humorous, Scottish family drama “Orphans”. Four years later, he made his second feature and decided to drop any form of humour and surrealism and delivered this hard-hitting account of the agonising and torturous true-story of the abuse that young women in Ireland faced in the name of religion.
In the 1960′s, many young women are incarcerated in a Irish convent, run by the Catholic church. Charged for committing such wrong-doing as flirting with boys, becoming pregnant out of wedlock, and being raped, they’re personal nightmares didn’t end there as they are physically and psychologically abused by the head nun and her sadistic staff, who are convinced they are doing the Lord’s work.
Having based his screenplay on actual Magdalene inmates’ experiences, Mullan achieves an authenticity of what life was like for the young women that had to endure the injustices, humiliation and brutality of these asylums and doesn’t pull any punches in his depiction of the events. At times it’s very difficult to stomach, such is the sheer power and uncompromising telling of this harrowing story and he’s aided, immeasurably, by an overwhelmingly excellent cast. As Sister Bridget, the head nun, Geraldine McEwan gives a very memorable and chilling performance that’s reminiscent of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” in it’s absolute personification of evil and Eileen Walsh is heart-breakingly compelling as the naive, downtrodden and religiously devoted Crispina. This is an actress that I haven’t seen since but she’s thoroughly deserving of more work and her performance was worthy of so much more recognition than she recieved. Speaking of which, the entire cast and crew deserved more awards attention on it’s release. It did receive numerous nominations and awards internationally, including a British Independent Film award for Ensemble Cast and The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. However, it didn’t receive much recognition across the pond and had this been directed by someone with a higher profile than Mullan and his crew, this film would have been hailed as a masterpiece. As it is, it’s had to rely on word-of-mouth to find an audience but this doesn’t lessen the effect or superb work by everyone involved here. Mullan’s direction is flawless, the cinematography by Nigel Willoughby is stark, and almost de-saturated, adding to the overall feeling of desperation and loneliness of the women and as mentioned, the performances are perfectly pitched from the largely unknown cast.
It may be hard for some to accept this behaviour went on but it’s even harder to accept that these asylums lasted until 1996, when the last one was finally shut down.
A harrowing and emotionally charged drama that while based on fact, is highly subversive. If the Vatican condemns a film on it’s release (which it did with this) then there’s no doubt that you’re in for a hard-hitting film. Painful, provocative and very important filmmaking.