The Magdalene Sisters, the grim, grueling and triumphantly powerful second film (the first being 1997's Orphans) directed by the barrel-chested Scottish actor Peter Mullan, begins by introducing us to three carefree young women about to end up as captives in one of the Magdalene Asylums, the hushed-up, forced-labor dormitories for "fallen women" operated throughout Europe by the Catholic Church from the 1800s until as recently as 1996. It's not until some time later that we meet a toothy, mop-haired girl named Crispina, who first appears, nondescript, in the background of a crowded group scene. There's something not quite right about Crispina—she has a childlike inability to see the complexities of a given situation and often speaks out of turn. The sort of girl who at one time (like the Ireland of 1964, where the movie is set) would have been called "slow," she quite likely doesn't realize how or why she's ended up where she has. (In truth, it's because she's given birth to an illegitimate son, who her sister occasionally brings to the asylum gates for a glimpse of his mother.) Played brilliantly by Eileen Walsh, Crispina is the soul of this movie—the Magdalenes' most helpless victim—and her story, told though it is in starkly unsentimental terms, will break the heart of anyone who has one.
Though the Catholic Church hasn't been all that keen on admitting it, the Magdalene Laundries, as they were also called, really existed and were, by many accounts, even worse than the dungeonlike sweatshop depicted in Mullan's film. Given that, and given the current vogue of combing through all things Catholic with the finest of fine-tooth combs, it would have surprised no one had The Magdalene Sisters been a scandalmongering anti-Catholic tract—the rabble-rousing, Oliver Stone version of controversial events (which some will think it is anyway). But Mullan's directorial choices are vastly more inspired than that; his tone is one of low-key rancor, like a bull carefully surveying his landscape before charging. Working with the cameraman Nigel Willoughby, Mullan gives us calm, meticulous compositions that suggest how places as evidently horrible as the Magdalene Asylums could come to seem, to the victims of their institutionalizing effects, both a refuge and a comfort. And rather than simply wagging his finger at the Church, Mullan (who is, like both the heroines and the villainesses of his film, Catholic) canvasses a broader terrain, faulting not any one particular system of organized belief, but the blind submission by any group of people to any such system. He is as ashamed as he is outraged, not at Catholicism itself, but at its exploitation by those entrusted to uphold its principles and by those who would knowingly lock up their daughters to wash away the sins of an entire nation.