Set in Dublin County in 1964, four young Irish women struggle to maintain their spirits while they endure dehumanising abuse as inmates of a Magdalene Sisters Asylum.
Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a wedding; when she complains, she is punished for her 'sin' by being sent to a Magdalene convent. Similar fates await Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan girl deemed to be too pretty and too flirtatious and Rose (Dorothy Duffy) an unmarried mother, who is cruelly separated from her baby. In the Institution they meet Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a simple-minded girl. The Institution is run by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a monstrous character who treats the girls in her charge appallingly and turns a blind eye to the most outrageous sexual abuse.
The Magdalene Sisters sets out to shock: it's an angry attack on the mental and physical cruelty meted out to young women by a branch of the Catholic Church and you have to keep reminding yourself that it all happened, not back in the days of Charles Dickens, but less than 40 years ago; the last Magdalene home was only closed down in 1996. The Vatican has attacked the accuracy of Peter Mullan's film, but the actor turned director claims that all the terrible incidents he depicts actually occurred – they are all taken from case histories. Mullan is best known for playing the leading role in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, and this is his second feature after the unreleased Orphans (you can see him in the film playing a father of one of the unfortunate girls).
The Magdalene Sisters is simply, but effectively, made, perhaps a little over-extended, but very well acted (Geraldine McEwan is very strong), and profoundly disturbing.