The Magdalene Sisters

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The Magdalene Sisters
The Magdalene Sisters poster.jpg
Movie poster
Directed by Peter Mullan
Produced by Frances Higson
Written by Peter Mullan
Starring Anne-Marie Duff
Nora Jane Noone
Dorothy Duffy
Geraldine McEwan
Eileen Walsh
Music by Craig Armstrong
Cinematography Nigel Willoughby
Distributed by Magna Pacific
Release dates 30 August 2002 (2002-08-30) (Venice)
25 October 2002 (Ireland)
21 February 2003
(United Kingdom)
Running time 119 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £2.5 million
Box office $21 million[1]

The Magdalene Sisters is a 2002 film, written and directed by Peter Mullan, about four teenage Irish girls who were sent to Magdalene asylums in the 1960s. The asylums, also known as "Magdalene Laundries", were homes for women who were labelled as "fallen" by their families or society, and were maintained by individual religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

Mullan has remarked that the film was initially made because victims of Magdalene asylums had received no closure in the form of recognition, compensation, or apology, and many remained lifelong devout Catholics.[2] Former Magdalene inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the reality of the Magdalene asylums was much worse than depicted in the film.[3]

Though set in Ireland, it was shot entirely on location in the Dumfries and Galloway area in southwest Scotland. The film was critically acclaimed, and received the Golden Lion at the 2002 Venice Film Festival.


In Ireland in 1964, three young women, considered sinners in need of redemption by society or their families, are sent to the Magdalene Asylum: Margaret, who was raped by her cousin at a wedding; Bernadette, who flirts with boys; and Rose, who has a child out of wedlock. As the Mother Superior, Sister Bridget, tells them, Magdalene Asylum's philosophy is to help young women return to God's grace through prayer, hard work and other forms of penance; it is named after Mary Magdalene, the Biblical fallen woman whom Jesus forgave and who devoted her life to asceticism to ensure she would be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

On her first night in the Asylum, Rose, known there by her confirmation name, Patricia, is in anguish as the milk backs up in her breasts. Another inmate of the asylum tells her she must endure the pain rather than lactate because the nuns will be outraged by any "leakage." She also warns Rose and Bernadette that if the nuns suspect they are becoming too friendly, they will be punished severely. The next morning, Katy, one of the older inmates, lectures Bernadette and Crispina about their insensitivity; rather than wash clothes in silence, they traded laundry secrets despite the fact that one of the asylum's nuns was in trouble for letting an inmate named Una O'Connor escape.

The next night, Una is brought back by her father—she had left the asylum because she desperately longed for her family. Her father renounces her, telling her that he will cripple her the next time he sees her. Although Sister Bridget speaks tenderly to her that night, the next day she cuts all of Una's long brunette locks off. Crispina and Bernadette are also reprimanded for speaking aloud in the laundry rooms, resulting in several blows to the back of the thighs with Sister Bridget's switch.

Bernadette tries to seduce Brendan, one of the men who ferry the laundry to and from the asylum, hoping that he will help her escape. But Brendan loses his nerve, leaving Bernadette to be punished with a bloody, forced haircut. She then continues to endure the miseries forced upon her and her fellow inmates, including having their naked bodies mocked by the nuns. Crispina tries to make herself terminally ill with the flu by soaking her nightgown in cold water then sleeping in it. When she loses her St. Christopher medal, she believes God is punishing her for some wrong and tries to hang herself. Only the intervention of Margaret, Rose and Bernadette saves her. Margaret tries to console Crispina by telling her she will soon be able to leave the convent to see her son, but Bernadette scoffs at the idea. Bernadette, who has had the St. Christopher medal all along, decides to keep it rather than return it to Crispina.

The next day, Margaret sees Crispina performing fellatio on Father Fitzroy, the resident priest just before mass. She continues to protect the slightly slow Crispina, telling her not to consider Fitzroy a man of God and fighting with Bernadette when she finds the St. Christopher medal under her bed. She also washes Fitzroy's vestments with a caustic plant that causes him to break out in a livid rash and strip off his clothes during an open-air mass. When Crispina realises she has the same rash between her legs and that Sister Bridget will not help her, she obsessively screams "You're not a man of God!" at Fitzroy for 10 minutes. That night, Crispina is forcibly taken to Mt. Vernon, a hospital for the mentally ill, so she cannot reveal any more about Fitzroy's sexual abuse of her.

At Christmas, Margaret's brother Eamonn retrieves her from the asylum; she has been at Magdalene for four years and has a difficult time accepting her good fortune. On the way out, they encounter Sister Bridget and the Bishop. When Margaret begins to pray in response to a threat from Sister Bridget, the Bishop gestures to Sister Bridget to move on without a confrontation. Bernadette finds Katy dead; when she goes to tell Sister Bridget, she sees Patricia being viciously beaten for telling Crispina's sister that she had been imprisoned in the mental hospital. That night, she tells Patricia that they have to leave. They break into Sister Bridget's office, and after a confrontation with Bridget and other nuns, escape the asylum. With the help of Bernadette's aunt, who lives in a nearby town, they are able to start anew.

Patricia (now Rose again) takes a ferry to Liverpool, in England; as an adult, she will marry and have two daughters before finding the son that was taken from her in 1964. Bernadette becomes a hairstylist like her aunt and moves to Scotland but is never able to have stable, happy relationships. She marries and divorces three times. Margaret became a school deputy headmistress but never married. Crispina was found by her sister in Mt. Vernon but, her mental health having deteriorated, she died there of anorexia in 1971.

The film's epilogue states that an estimated 30,000 women were held at Magdalene asylums throughout Ireland, and the last laundry closed in 1996.


  • Margaret McGuire: After telling her family she was raped by a cousin at a family wedding, Margaret is sent to the laundry as her father believes she lured her cousin into the act. She takes Crispina under her wing, despite Crispina being the longer-serving inmate. Margaret tries to ensure Crispina's safety, although her efforts sometimes unwittingly cause harsh consequences for Crispina. Margaret cares very much for her friend and promises to find Crispina's holy St Christopher pendant after it is stolen by Bernadette. After catching a glimpse of Father Fitzroy forcing Crispina to fellate him, Margaret mixes caustic plants with his undergarments to make him break out in a rash, as an act of revenge on Crispina's behalf. In one scene, Margaret succeeds in escaping from the asylum, but turns back for reasons which are never made clear. She is eventually freed when her younger brother comes to collect her, four years after her incarceration.
  • Bernadette Harvey: Bernadette Harvey is a beautiful teenage orphan from St. Attracta's Orphanage, who is sent to the Magdalene Laundry because she is flirtatious with the boys at the orphanage. However, Bernadette, unlike the other three girls, is still a virgin. Bernadette makes a disastrous attempt to escape from the asylum shortly after she arrives by trying to convince a male employee to agree to marry her and then elope, and has her hair cut off in punishment. She remains the most rebellious and headstrong of the girls, making her hatred for the asylum clearly felt. She is ultimately good, helping the other girls and, in one scene, momentarily relinquishes her stony attitude when the laundry overseer, Katy, dies, kissing her on the forehead. She eventually escapes the asylum with Rose after wrestling for the key with Sister Bridget.
  • Rose Dunne/Patricia: Rose Dunne finds herself in the laundry after having a baby out of wedlock. She is prepared to work hard for the sins she has committed, in the hope that she may see her son again one day. Sister Bridget says she will be called by her confirmation name, 'Patricia', because the laundry already has a girl named Rose. Rose becomes increasingly resentful of her lack of freedom after she is denied sending her son a birthday card. After she is severely beaten by Sister Bridget for talking to Crispina's sister and son through the gate, she agrees to escape with Bernadette. She symbolically regains her identity by reverting to her birth name at the end, telling the woman: "My name is Rose." The movie later states that she is reunited with her son many years later when he is an adult.
  • Harriet/Crispina: Crispina's real name is Harriet; but the nuns have nicknamed her Crispina – which means 'girl with the curly hair', even though the hair on her head is straight. In a scene where the nuns are taunting the naked girls over various physical attributes while in the shower room, the nuns cruelly point out Crispina has much more pubic hair than the others, which explains the laundry name. She was sent to the laundry for giving birth to a child out of wedlock. She is poorly educated and intellectually disabled, and believes she deserves the treatment she receives at the hands of the nuns. Because of her mental state, Crispina sometimes does or says strange things, such as she believing her St Christopher pendant is a 'holy telephone' through which she can speak with her sister and her son. Crispina attempts to hang herself after her cherished St Christopher is stolen by Bernadette, but she is saved by Margaret. Margaret witnesses Father Fitzroy sexually abusing Crispina, and decides to punish him by placing leaves of caustic plants in with his undergarments. At an outdoor mass, Father Fitzroy begins to violently tear his clothing off, as the plant is causing him to break out in hives. Crispina lifts the front of her dress, and all can see she has a similar rash in between her thighs. Crispina begins chanting "You are not a man of God" louder and louder. To prevent others from finding out about the abuse, the nuns force Crispina into a mental institution, where she is seen in a psychotic state. The movie states she dies at the institution at the age of 24, due to anorexia.
  • Sister Bridget, Mother Superior: The sadistic and greedy Sister Bridget is soft-spoken and gentle-faced, but commits acts of unbelievable cruelty. Money-hungry, she relishes counting the profits from the laundry. She often punishes the girls through humiliating acts; in one scene she is cutting off Una's hair nonchalantly as she reprimands Bernadette and Crispina for talking out of turn. In another scene she violently attacks Rose.
  • Father Fitzroy: Resident priest who is sexually abusing Crispina.
  • Una O'Connor: Una is first mentioned as having run away, and next appears being dragged back into the dormitory by her hair by her father, who angrily thrashes her, calls her a "slut" and warns her never to come home. It is suggested that she was sent to the asylum for having premarital sex or a baby out of wedlock. Una later has all her hair cut off by Sister Bridget to discourage her from escaping again. Sister Bridget chuckled at her when she kneels to the floor and starts to pick up her cut hair, telling her that all her hair is useless. After this episode, Una is quickly broken down by the nuns and it is announced that she has petitioned to take vows and become a nun herself. It is insinuated that Father Fitzroy is involved in her petition.
  • Sister Jude, Sister Clementine and Sister Augusta: Other nuns who also abuse and humiliate the girls.
  • Katy: The laundry overseer who has been in the asylum for over forty years. When Bernadette tries to escape from the asylum early on in the film, Katy alerts the sisters, resulting in Bernadette having her hair cut off. Katy dies near the end of the film from an undisclosed illness; on her deathbed, she reveals to Bernadette that she had a child out of wedlock.


Critical reception[edit]

The film received very positive reviews from critics. As of September 2014, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 90% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 147 reviews.[4] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 83 out of 100, based on 38 reviews – indicating "universal acclaim".[5] This made it the twentieth best reviewed film of the year.[6] The film appeared on several US critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2003.[7]

The film also received critical acclaim when it was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, culminating with Peter Mullan taking home the festival's highest prize the Golden Lion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters (2003)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2 January 2012. 
  2. ^ "Interview with Peter Mullan". Movie Chicks. Retrieved 7 March 2008. "It was initially because it was unfinished. They hadn't received any recognition, they hadn't received any compensation, and they hadn't been given an apology. And they remained devout Catholics. So initially, it was as a means to get their story in the public domain." 
  3. ^ Gibbons, Fiachra (7 February 2003). "In God's Name". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 7 March 2008. ""It was worse in the Magdalenes, much worse than what you see. I don't like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns," says McDonagh, who spent five years in one in Galway after being molested by a neighbour. She was spirited away early one morning by a priest and told she had "brought shame on her family"." 
  4. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 7 September 2014. 
  5. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters (2003): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 25 October 2008. 
  6. ^ "The Best-Reviewed Movies of 2003". Metacritic. Retrieved 25 October 2008. 
  7. ^ "Metacritic: 2003 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 25 October 2008. 

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