The Magdalene Asylums in Ireland were run by the Sisters of Mercy on behalf of the catholic church. Young girls ‘were sent there by families or orphanage and once there, were imprisoned and sent to work in the laundries where they could atone for their sins. Their sins varied from being an unmarried mother to being too pretty or too ugly or simple minded or too clever or being a victim of rape and talking about it. And for their sins they worked 364 days a year unpaid, they were half starved, beaten, humiliated, raped, their children forcibly removed from them. Their sentence was indefinite. Thousands of women lived and died there. The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed in 1996, four years ago.
This film is from the point of view of four of these young women in the 1960s, an era mistakenly seen by some as a time of unchallenged female liberation. These young Catholic women find themselves in an almost medieval nightmare whilst the outside world tacitly (or in some cases actively) support a theocratic state. It looks at how their personalities develop for better and for worse in an environment controlled and dominated by celibate women, servants of God, Brides of Christ. in their own ways the girls refuse to be beaten but what victory is there if they remain imprisoned as little more than slaves? One gets out in a heartbreakingly banal fashion, one is imprisoned in a mental asylum, two finally rebel, run away, escape.
It's a fictional film that unfortunately happens to be true.

Director's Statement

The principle strength of the film are the characters. All the characters. Not just the Magdalene girls and nuns but the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Every face, every human dynamic is important to me not least because they are all part victim, part perpetrator of a society which stifles rather than nourishes the human spirit; which warps rather than strengthens individual and communal development. Every theocratic state, be it Christian or otherwise wages war on human nature thus driving it inevitably towards the unnatural. Two examples from Magdalene — the rapist and Una's father.
The young man who rapes his cousin at the start of the film is not a black eyed psychopath. He's a fresh faced youngster who for reasons known only to himself rapes his cousin. A member of his family that he has grown up with, played with, loved. The fact that we don't know why, that Margaret doesn't know why is because he doesn't know why. The actor when enticing Margaret to the locker room, when he makes his first attempt to have sex with her has to convey all this young man's confusion then suddenly convert his Feelings into the most brutal form of abuse. Like his father, his uncles, his priests, his natural sexual impulses have been suppressed to such an extent that when they momentarily emerge they are crooked, angry and perverse.
The same applies to Una's father. The actor has to convey a heart breaking contradiction: to assault, abandon and imprison the daughter you love more than anything else in the world. He's as much a prisoner of this system as she is and without wanting to hit the audience over the head with this i want the audience to feel some of his pain as much as Una's.
Another contradiction worth noting is that the nuns and priests may use religious vocabulary but it is delivered very much like small time business men and women. lt may infuse itself with biblical color but it's still the language of the factory floor. And as such it has to be rapier-like. Fast, biting, cutting and in a weird cold way — funny! Even if it's only because they think they're funny. It's always very dangerous to anticipate or predict what an audience will find amusing in a film but 1 genuinely hope to at least raise a smile when the priest is making his 8mm film and asks the nuns to be natural. Having seen what we have seen up to that point 1 hope that the actors with such ludicrous facial and physical movements inadvertently satirize one of the most unnatural species on earth. All the actors playing the nuns and priests will be encouraged to play the roles as close to themselves as dramatically feasible, thus avoiding any 'Oirish' nun and priest acting. One example of this is when Sister Clementine ridicules the girls naked bodies. The actress has to be able to show someone who genuinely believes they're having a piece of harmless fun and that the girls themselves should be enjoying it. We might not see it that way but she does and the actress will have to be brave enough to do that. In other words what Clementine does is appalling but it can't be played as such. Two nights ago I watched an elderly man being interviewed on Newsnight and openly

discuss raping his daughter when she was ten years old. What was absolutely chilling was the way he said it. Like a man describing what he did on holiday. If you'd scripted what he said and gave it to an actor, nine out of ten performances would have all manner of give-away tics and strange behavior. They'd want you to know he's a pervert. The difference with this pervert is that he doesn't know it. And it's not that it's disguised or hidden he genuinely doesn't believe he's done anything wrong. Now that's frightening. That's the true banality of evil. And that's one of the keys to all the actors in this film.

Just as the actors will be encouraged to be non-judgmental so too is the camera. By that l mean 1 don't want the camera to favor or prejudice according to character. Girls in glowing light, nuns in shady darkness, that kind of thing. I want the shooting style to be raw and confident. Raw in the sense that we'll only be using hand-held or tripod and the emphasis will be on character rather than strict composition. However, that does not mean docu-drama. lt simply means the actors will be free to develop scenes without the rigidity that comes of hitting marks, playing for camera etc. And it also gives me the freedom to capture images as they happen. Confident in the sense that I don't want the camera whizzing around for no apparent reason. If a scene requires a perfectly still moment with minimal cuts, then so be it. If that moment requires a wide shot, or extreme close up then so be it. I'll only be able to decide that on the day. The main thing is that both we and the actors have the means to explore according to our sensibilities.
For me the immediacy of this technique is vital in order to avoid any plodding, Movie of the Week, `this is a true story' type film with all the sentimentality and emotional predictability that comes with it. 1 want the audience to feel that they are as close emotionally and physically to these girls as if they were there themselves. Thus the detail of their physical surroundings should be of heightened importance — a bar of soap, a glass of water, a piece of bread, a shoe-lace, a freshly ironed table-cloth, a battered bible, a tin of polish, a holy medal, a piece of rope, a key. It's a world stripped down to it's bare essentials. And it's in this hygienic and uncluttered world that the girls fight to survive — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Director's Biography

Peter Mullan is an acclaimed writer, director and actor. He has written and directed three short films and one feature before his current project. As a director and writer he made his debut with the short film Close in 1993. lt won the Michael Samuelson Best Film Award and marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration between Peter and THE SISTERS MAGDALENE producer Frances Higson. This was followed shortly by Good Day For The Bad Guys in 1995 and Fridge in 1996, which received international acclaim collecting among others a BAFTA, Best Film at Bilbao Film Festival and Best International Drama at Palm Springs Short Film Festival. Peter's first feature film Orphans, which again he both wrote and directed, starred Douglas Henshall and Gary Lewis, lt received an enthusiastic response from audiences and critics alike, vvinning many international awards including Best Film at Venice Film Festival and Best European Screenplay at Barcelona Film Festival in 1999.
An established actor, in the 1990s Peter starred in The Big Man and Riff-Raff. He worked alongside Ewan McGregor in Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave and Trainspotting and with Mel Gibson in Braveheart. His rote as Joe in Ken Loach's My Name is Joe, in 1998, won him critical public recognition with Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, Valladolid Film festival and Empire Film Awards. His most recent work includes Miss Julie, in 1999, opposite Saffron Burrows, Ordinary Decent Criminal with Kevin Spacey, Michael Winterbottom's The Claim with Milla Jovovich and Natassja Kinski and Session 9 directed by Brad Anderson.
Peter has also directed for television, including several episodes for BBC's drama Cardiac Arrest, starring Helen Baxendale, which earned him a
nomination for Best Director at the Royal Television Society. His television work as an actor includes, co-starring with Marc McMannus in Taggart and BBC comedies Ruffian Hearts with Maureen Beattie and Ewen Bremner and Rab C Nesbitt with Gregor Fisher.


Cast & Crew

Directed by: Peter Mullan

Written by: Peter Mullan

Produced by: Frances Higson

Cinematography: Nigel Willoughby

Editing: Colin Monie

Production Design: Mark Leese

Costume Design: Trisha Biggar

Make-Up & Hair: Dianne Jamieson

Original Score: Craig Armstrong

Cast: Dorothy Duffy (Rose (Patricia)), Eileen Walsh (Harriet (Crispina)), Mary Murray (Una), Britta Smith (Katy), Anne-Marie Duff (Margaret), Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette)

Nominations and Awards

  • European Film 2002