The Magdalene Sisters

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The Magdalene Sisters
The Magdalene Sisters poster.jpg
Movie poster
Directed byPeter Mullan
Written byPeter Mullan
Produced byDavid Crane
StarringGeraldine McEwan
Anne-Marie Duff
Nora Jane Noone
Dorothy Duffy
Eileen Walsh
CinematographyNigel Willoughby
Music byCraig Armstrong
Momentum Pictures
Temple Films
PFP Films
Distributed byMomentum Pictures
Release dates
30 August 2002 (2002-08-30) (Venice)
25 October 2002 (Ireland)
21 February 2003
(United Kingdom) 1 August 2003
Running time
119 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom
Box office$20,957,001[2]

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

Peter 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.[3] Former Magdalene inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh told Mullan that the reality of the Magdalene asylums was much worse than depicted in the film.[4] Historians have questioned and refuted some of the depictions of these institutions in the film.[5]

Though set in Ireland, the film was shot entirely on location in Dumfries and Galloway, South-West Scotland. The film was distributed by Miramax.

The convent used for the film location was badly damaged by fire on 9 August 2022; it had been St Benedict's Convent in West Dumfries.


In Ireland, 1964, so-called "fallen" women are considered sinners who needed to be redeemed. Four young women – Margaret (raped by her cousin), Bernadette (too beautiful and coquettish), Rose (an unmarried mother) and Crispina (an intellectually disabled unmarried mother) – are forced by their families or caretakers into the Magdalene asylum. The film details the disastrous lives of the four girls whilst they are inmates, portraying their harsh daily regimen and their squalid living conditions at the laundries.

Each woman suffers horrific cruelty and violence from the Mother Superior. Sister Bridget, despite her gentle-faced appearance and outwardly soft-spoken demeanour, is characterised as sadistic and almost inhuman at times, as conveyed through her merciless beating of Rose in full view of Bernadette, or when she mockingly laughs at Una as she hopelessly clutches at her fallen hair locks.

Sister Bridget relishes the money the business receives and it is suggested that little of it is distributed appropriately. Those who liken themselves to Mary Magdalene, who deprived herself of all pleasures of the flesh including food and drink, eat hearty breakfasts of buttered toast and bacon while the working women subsist on oatmeal. In one particularly humiliating scene, the women are forced to stand naked in a line after taking a communal shower. The nuns then hold a "contest" on who has the most pubic hair, biggest bottom, biggest breasts and smallest breasts. The corruption of the resident priest, Father Fitzroy, is made very clear through his sexual abuse of Crispina. However, as the years pass, automatic washing machines start to appear, a modern household appliance whose growing ubiquity would eventually fatally undermine the economic viability of commercial laundries and make the Magdalene asylums unsustainable.

Three of the girls are shown, to some extent, to triumph over their situation and their captors. Margaret, although she is allowed to leave by the intervention of her younger brother, does not leave the asylum without leaving her mark. When she deliberately asks Sister Bridget to step aside for her to freely pass and is sharply shot down, Margaret falls to her knees in prayer. The Mother Superior is so surprised, she only moves past her after the Bishop tells her to come along. Bernadette and Rose finally decide to escape together, trashing Sister Bridget's study in search for the key to the asylum door and engaging her in a suspenseful confrontation. The two girls escape her clutches and are helped to return to the real world by a sympathetic relative, their story optimistically ending when Rose boards a coach bound for the ferry to Liverpool and Bernadette becomes an apprentice hairdresser. Crispina's end, however, is not a happy one; she spends the rest of her days in a mental institution (where she was sent to silence her from revealing the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Father Fitzroy) and dies of anorexia at age 24.[6] The film's script is fictional, but based on four testimonies reported in the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate. Some have challenged the historical accuracy of some aspects of the film.[5]



Noone, who played Bernadette Harvey, secured the role following an open audition held in Galway, Ireland, where at the time she was studying science in college. Her audition was praised by director Peter Mullen, who was looking for an actress versatile enough to "change drastically from being feisty and mischievous into someone very dark and damaged".[7]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received critical acclaim when it was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2002. There, Mullan was awarded the festival's highest prize, the Golden Lion. As of 2021, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of critics and 89% of viewers gave the film positive reviews, based on 144 reviews.[8] Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 83 out of 100, based on 38 reviews – indicating "universal acclaim".[1] This made it the twentieth best reviewed film of the year.[9] The film appeared on several US critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2003.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Magdalene Sisters (2003): Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
  2. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters". Box Office Mojo.
  3. ^ "Interview with Peter Mullan". Movie Chicks. Retrieved 7 March 2008.
  4. ^ Gibbons, Fiachra (7 February 2003). "In God's Name". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 March 2008.
  5. ^ a b Humphreys, Joe (9 February 2013). "Are factual inaccuracies in movies justified by role in highlighting issues?". The Irish Times. Retrieved 3 July 2021.
  6. ^ Darby, Alexis, "The Magdalene Sisters (2002)". Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2018-06-01). ISSN: 1940-5030
  7. ^ "First-time actress tackles challenging part in 'Magdalene Sisters'". The Times. 16 October 2003. p. 65.
  8. ^ "The Magdalene Sisters". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
  9. ^ "The Best-Reviewed Movies of 2003". Metacritic. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
  10. ^ "Metacritic: 2003 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 25 October 2008.

External links[edit]