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The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Directed by:

Peter Mullan

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 119 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Say what you like about Peter Mullan, but he certainly isn't scared of a bit of controversy. The Scottish director has been on the receiving end of all-out condemnation from the Catholic church for this no-holds-barred portrayal of the harshness of life inside a convent for “wayward girls” – and it's hardly surprising. But, just like so many of the film world's more controversial works, The Magdalene Sisters – loosely based on a true-life Channel 4 documentary – is compelling stuff.

It's Dublin, 1964. Bernadette, Margaret and Rose (Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff and Dorothy Duffy) play three girls sent to spend their lives at the Magdalene convent (which doubles as a laundry workhouse) as punishment for their supposedly-sinful ways. Here they come under the brutal authority of the deeply-sadistic resident nuns, most notably a particularly nasty piece of work by the name of Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan).

While we're rationed occasional instances of comic relief – notably from an itching priest, a scene involving the blessing of washing machines and the Rain Man-esque character of Crispina (Eileen Walsh) – the treatment of the girls is as hard to watch as it is frustrating. You'll wonder why on earth they're willing to put up with such horrific and wholly undeserved treatment without putting up more of a fight – only Bernadette seems even remotely interested in doing something to change her situation. At one point, Margaret even goes as far as to choose against making her escape when a garden gate leading to freedom is accidentally left swinging open. There's a lot to be said for the fear of God.

The film is all the better for Mullan's subtle style of direction (proving you don't need to throw trick after trick at the screen to be aesthetically effective), whilst the sharp contrast in lighting between the inside and outside of the convent constantly emphasises the bleakness of the girls' situation.

It's Got: Excellent performances from the entire cast, particularly Nora-Jane Noone as the feisty orphan Bernadette.

It Needs: The evil Sister Bridget to get her comeuppance

Alternatives:

Black Narcissus., Orphans, Shawshank Redemption

Summary

A simultaneously dark and light tale, told with minimum fuss and maximum effectiveness. Just be warned – Sister Act it ain’t.