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Film / The Magdalene Sisters

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The Magdalene Sisters is an Irish drama film directed by Peter Mullan. It was inspired by the documentary Sex In A Cold Climate and delves into one of the darker parts of Ireland's history - the Magdalene laundries. The laundries were originally established in Victorian times as a place to shelter women deemed "fallen" by society and they eventually evolved into places where any woman who was deemed corrupt by the Church was sent there for the rest of her life. The women were put to work in the laundries and kept under the supervision of nuns who punished them cruelly. The only way to leave the laundry was for two men over 18 to sign the woman out.

This film follows four women in one of the laundries in the 1960s. We have Margaret, a woman raped by her cousin at a wedding and sent there because she is no longer a virgin. There's Rose, who has just had a baby out of wedlock, being forced to put him up for adoption before being sent away. Bernadette is a teenage orphan sent to the laundry because she was thought to be too flirtatious with some of the local boys and, unlike the other girls, she is still a virgin. There's Crispina, sent to the laundry years ago for having a baby out of wedlock and is now quite unstable. The entire laundry is run by the malevolent Sister Bridget.


This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcatraz: Subverted. The laundry is easily accessible and on the edge of a town. The girls are only kept in their room with a chair in front of the door (though they do eventually fit a lock on it). There's even a back gate, but the girls are kept in there through Stockholm Syndrome and the knowledge that the world wouldn't accept them if they did escape.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Sister Bridget believes this, claiming that Bernadette was sent to the laundry to avoid tempting men because of her looks.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Crispina has some kind of disability, and it's unknown if she was traumatised by the incident that left her pregnant or else she already had some kind of mental illness. Or simply she could have grown up quite sheltered, as one of the documentary subjects in Sex in a Cold Climate (who admits to not even knowing she was in a prison for most of her life).
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  • Amulet of Dependency: Crispina's St Christopher medal. She believes it helps her communicate with her son.
  • Antagonist Title: The Magdalene Sisters refers to the nuns that run the laundry and not the inmates.
  • Battering Ram: Rose and Bernadette improvise one with a bed to escape their dormitory room.
  • Beautiful All Along: When Rose and Bernadette escape from the laundry, Bernadette's cousin gives them both a bit of a makeover. The difference in Rose is startling.
  • Beauty Is Bad: Discussed by Bernadette and two little girls. Bernadette theorises that since the Virgin Mary is beautiful then it's not a sin. She then says it's a sin to be vain.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Sister Bridget. To the world she's a kindly elderly lady while to the girls she's the devil.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bernadette, Rose and Margaret all get to leave the laundry but are traumatised by their experiences, though they do lead full lives. However, the rest of the girls and hundreds more endure life in the laundry and Crispina dies of anorexia in the asylum she is sent to. It's then revealed that the last laundry closed in 1996.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Blonde Rose, dark brown Bernadette, reddish-brown Margaret, and black haired Crispina. There's also a red-haired girl whose name is never mentioned.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Crispina is already broken at this point. She maintains a positive attitude as best she can, but the loss of her St Christopher medal and being taken away, later committed to an asylum, breaks her completely.
    • Rose is disowned by her family for her pregnancy, forced to adopt her baby out (even when she tries to stop them) and made to go by her Confirmation name. Subverted because she remained a good person and devout Christian after escaping the laundry.
    • Implied to have happened to Katy as well. She's basically been there so long that she has long since given up hope of ever getting out and willfully rats out Bernadette when she tries to escape the first time.
  • Break the Haughty: Sister Bridget tries to do this to Bernadette.
  • By the Hair: Our introduction to Una is her father dragging her back into the dormitory by her hair.
  • Call-Back: Their first night in the laundry, Bernadette and Rose talk in the bathroom. When they are in the same place again they plot to escape.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The key to the safe.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • Bernadette mentions she has a cousin who's a hairdresser. She and Rose go to the cousin for help after escaping.
    • Similarly Margaret's brother is in one scene at the start but then reappears to sign Margaret out of the laundry.
  • Church Militant: Sadly, Truth in Television.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The girls in the laundry all wear the same drab green uniform, the nuns all wear black and the girls wear blue whenever they are out in the town.
  • Crapsack World: The laundry and really the entire country when you consider that there were dozens more.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Played with. Una's family disown her so she ends up taking vows to become a nun herself.
  • Defiled Forever: Margaret is raped by her cousin and she's punished by being sent to the laundry because she's no longer a virgin.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film is set in 1960s Ireland, when the Catholic Church held lots of power, and thus we get...
    • Bernadette is sent away to the laundry for being too flirty with the boys, as the orphanage directors fear she would tempt them to be sinful.
    • Margaret is raped by her cousin, but she's the one punished for no longer being a virgin.
    • Rose is convinced to give up her baby for adoption because she's unmarried. She agrees briefly but then tries to say she's changed her mind, and is overruled.
    • Crispina is discovered to have been molested by the priest. She's sent away while he goes unpunished (at least that we know of).
    • Una escapes and is dragged back into the laundry by her father, being disowned completely for whatever reason she was sent there in the first place. In those days, the whole family was considered shamed, and Una's time in the laundry would be the penance needed to ensure her relatives go to Heaven.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Bernadette finally plots to escape the laundry and does so with Rose, fending off the nuns by screaming at them and holding a candlestick.
  • Driven to Suicide: Crispina after she loses her St. Christopher medal. She sleeps on wet sheets to make herself sick and tries to hang herself in the dormitory. Her Where Are They Now text states that she later dies of anorexia.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change:
    • Bernadette's cut-off hair is shown grown back after a montage to indicate that time has passed. But it's after another Time Skip that her hair has grown much longer. It's now that she has the will to escape.
    • Una's hair grows back too, but not to its original length, symbolising how she's accepted, she can't go home and will become a nun herself.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The nuns make all the girls strip off their clothes and perform exercises while they judge who has the biggest breasts, hairiest area, and other unpleasant things.
    • The priest strips naked in the middle of a sermon. He's a middle-aged man who's been molesting Crispina.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sister Bridget is often very cheerful and chipper, which creates a lot of dissonance with just what a horrible piece of work she is. For example, her Kick the Dog moment of mocking Una when she tries to pick up her cut-off hair, is said so jovially. She even jokes around about her love of westerns at Christmas.
  • Female Misogynist: If the nuns didn't operate on this trope, the Magdalene laundries wouldn't be so notorious. Everything from victim blaming to openly judging girls while making them perform humiliating exercises in the nude and slut shaming are invoked on mostly teenage girls.
  • Foreshadowing: At the orphanage, a girl asked Bernardette if being beautiful is a sin, which is exactly why Bernardette was sent to the Magdalene laundry.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: Despite being based on a real case, the film tones down the habitual violence the girls endured under the nuns' hands and also showed the girls speaking to each other and forming friendships - in reality, both were forbidden.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Rose is a blonde and she is the kindest of the protagonists. She's also proved to be The Pollyanna and remains a Catholic until her death.
  • Hypocrite: Several of the nuns. Sister Bridget, in particular, preaches against earthly pleasures while pocketing most of the laundry's profits and she and the other nuns dine on bacon, sausage, buttered toast, and fruit for breakfast while the girls are forced to eat stale bread and porridge.
  • I Have No Daughter: Una's father tells her this before he abandons her in the laundry.
  • Ironic Nickname: Crispina means "girl with the curly hair" and Crispina's hair isn't curly. The nuns gave her the name Crispina; it's not her real name. And they're not talking about the hair on her head...
  • Humiliation Conga: An example that turns sour halfway through. The priest gets poison oak put in his clothes by Margaret. The itching kicks in during a public sermon and he strips off his clothes and runs off into town. It then turns out Crispina has the same rashes on her thighs, revealing she was molested.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bernadette. She is capable of sympathy and compassion, but her spiteful actions towards Crispina and her Kick the Dog moment with Katy shows she has a very harsh side.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Margaret's cousin rapes her and she ends up being punished. Granted we never find out what happened to him but it still fits this trope.
    • Sister Bridget never gets any comeuppance beyond knowing she let two girls escape in exchange for the key to the safe. She'll likely stay at the laundry for years abusing the girls, and won't be exposed until the 2000s by which she'll probably be dead.
  • Kick the Dog: Sister Bridget loves to do this. She laughs cruelly at Una as she tries to pick up her cut off hair. Also she mocks Rose when she asks if she can send a birthday card to her son.
  • Kissing Cousins: Margaret and Kevin at the start, though Margaret is extremely squicked out when it happens.
  • Knight Templar: Sister Bridget.
  • Made a Slave: Everyone not a nun, apparently. Though some of the more doubtful nuns might also see themselves as such eventually.
  • Money, Dear Boy: In-Universe, Sister Bridget lets Bernadette and Rose escape when Rose gives her the key to the safe with all the laundry's money in it.
  • Mood Whiplash: The humourous scene of the Parish priest stripping off and running away naked because Margaret put poison oak in his clothes takes a sharp u-turn when Crispina reveals she has the same rashes around her thighs, implying the priest molested her.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Margaret puts poison oak in Father Fitzroy's clothes, causing him so much irritation that he strips off during a sermon. Unfortunately Fitzroy was molesting Crispina, who developed a nasty rash around her thighs. Upon discovering this, the nuns put her in a mental institution as a way of keeping her silent about the abuse. She eventually dies there, at the age of 24.
  • Nice, Mean, and In-Between: Rose is a kind-hearted woman who's nice to everyone. Bernadette is aloof and snarky, with only the occasional Pet the Dog moment. Margaret takes Crispina under her wing but physically attacks Bernadette and yells at her brother.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: When Rose is caught trying to talk to Crispina's sister through the fence, Sister Bridget gives her a ferocious beating, and tells her to remember it if she ever feels like doing that again.
  • Oh, Crap!: Margaret when she sees her cousin telling her father that she's just been raped. Bernadette when the nuns discover her trying to escape.
  • Oireland: Averted with a cast of Irish actors though the woman Katy slips into this, attacking her "o"s and "u"s rather fiercely.
  • One Steve Limit: Sister Bridget enforces this. There's already a Rose in the laundry so Sister Bridget forces everyone to call Rose Patricia (her Confirmation name). Crispina's real name is Harriett so this may apply to her as well.
  • Parental Abandonment: And how. Rose's mother won't even speak to her when she's had her baby, Margaret's father sends her away and Una's father drags her back into the laundry by her hair when she escapes, saying she has no family left.
  • Pet the Dog: At Christmas, all the girls in the laundry are allowed to watch a film (though most of them are bored by it) and they also each get an orange laid on their bed.
  • Rape as Drama: Margaret's cousin rapes her in the opening scene. Given the time period, Margaret is blamed for this and is sent to the laundry.
  • Really Gets Around: Bernadette is implied to be this, flirting with a few local boys, but it turns out she's still a virgin.
  • Rule-Abiding Rebel: Invoked by Margaret when she's about to leave the laundry. On her way out, she refuses to get out of Sister Bridget's way. Sister Bridget responds "you'll be staying then?"
  • Shaking Her Hair Loose: Bernadette at the end when she sees two nuns (not ones from the laundry) looking at her on the street.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: There's a huge difference when we see Rose and Bernadette all cleaned up at the end.
  • Sinister Minister: The Parish priest turns out to be molesting Crispina.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Bernadette is punished for her beauty - because boys flirt with her a lot, she's sent to the laundry. The negative effects of this are shown in the ending where Bernadette walks down a busy street and everyone stares at her simply because she's so gorgeous but it clearly makes her uncomfortable.
  • Stepford Smiler: Sister Bridget is a type C while all the girls in the laundry are type As most visible when they walk through town smiling to onlookers.
  • Technology Marches On: In-Universe, when the girls are first brought to the laundry, all the washing is done by hand. Over the course of the movie, washing machines are purchased (A technology that helped a lot in finally doing in these hellholes by its rise as a common household appliance destroying the consumer market for commercial laundries). Also, the nuns keep the profits in biscuit tins early on and Sister Bridget is exasperated when she can't find the key to the safe that is later added to her office.
  • Tranquil Fury: Sister Bridget gets angry many times, but never raises her voice, and is all the more terrifying because of it.
  • Traumatic Haircut: This is the punishment for trying to escape the laundry. Happens to Una and later Bernadette. According to the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, hair was often cut simply if the nuns thought it was too pretty.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Brendan is last seen driving away in the back of the delivery van, with no explanation of what happened to him.
    • We likewise never find out what became of the cousin that raped Margaret at his sister's wedding.
    • Or for that matter, what happened to the priest who was exposed for molesting Crispina. Likely he was transferred to another parish and everyone pretended it never happened.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Which includes the ultimate final outrage of these self-righteous gulags; the final ones were only closed in 1996.
  • Wrongfully Committed: Crispina is sent to a psychiatric hospital by the nuns after it's revealed she was raped by the parish's priest in order for her to keep her abuse a secret.