The Magdalene Sisters walked away with an armful of awards from various film festivals and independent film groups: Best Picture at the Venice, Los Angeles, Nantucket, and Newport International Film Festivals, Best Ensemble Cast from the British Independent Film Awards, British Film of the Year from the London Critics Circle, the Discovery Award for director Peter Mullan at the Toronto Film Festival. There's a reason for all those awards, and it's a very simple one: The Magdalene Sisters is an amazing film.
The story follows three young women in 1960s Ireland: Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette have all run afoul in one way or another of the rigid Catholic code of moral conduct... one that viewed women as potential temptresses at best, wicked and sinful whores at worst, and one that enforced a vicious double standard of behavior among men and women. All three are sent to a "Magdalene Asylum," run by Sister Bridget with an iron hand with the stated intention of purifying these women of their sins so they can get into heaven. But what the three women discover when they arrive is that the real nature of the Asylum is neither charitable nor humane: the inmates (for the Magdalene Asylum was a prison in all but name) perform profitable slave labor in the Asylum's laundry business, and suffer humiliation and abuse at the hands of the nuns.
Powered by exceptional performances by every single member of the cast, The Magdalene Sisters presents a clear-eyed, gripping story of the dark side of a morally repressive culture, and the human costs it entails. It's a story of how human beings can rationalize suffering, how they can endure it, and, if they have the courage, how they can escape it. The Magdalene Sisters keeps its story firmly on the individual level, following the fates of the three new inmates, Bernadette, Rose, and Margaret, and one more, Crispina, whom we meet later in the film; this is a very effective choice, and it makes the story all the more powerful. A short text coda before the credits does fill in a little bit more detail on the Magdalene Asylums, providing just enough additional context to heighten the impact of the film.
It's worth noting that despite the film's bitingly critical portrayal of the Catholic Church in Ireland, there are no stereotyped "good guys" or "bad guys" in the film. The imprisoned women are not perfect; they're human beings trying to survive as best they can. Even Sister Bridget (brilliantly portrayed by Geraldine McEwan) is interestingly complex. Corrupted by absolute power? Sadistic? In part, yes, but by the end of the film, there's at least a hint that she truly believes in what she's doing, that she acts at least in part by the tenets of her faith. And that's even more frightening than a two-dimensional "sadistic prison warden" character. The dehumanizing nature of the Asylum, the abuse and repression of young women who had done nothing truly wrong... these things happened not because a few "bad guys" were in charge, but because a great many people truly believed that it was the only right thing to do.
With such strong performances and such a powerful story, The Magdalene Sisters doesn't need anything more to be an outstanding film, but it actually has it. This is one of the most well-crafted films I've had the pleasure to see, and the combination of extremely talented cinematography and editing adds yet another layer to the film. Just to pick one example out of many, the opening scene of the film is positively brilliant, introducing one of the central characters and developing her situation in an eight-minute scene that takes place entirely without dialogue, in the midst of a crowded room. After this, we're given similarly powerful introductions to each of the other main characters, all with just the right amount of time spent on each one: not too much, not too little. In fact, the same can be said for the entire film: every scene is developed just long enough for its full impact, and no longer. There are no extraneous scenes here; every scene, every moment adds something important to the overall film. The result is a film that's incredibly engaging from, quite literally, the very first moment.
The only weak point in this DVD is that the transfer isn't as good as it should be. There's a lot of noise in the image throughout the film, making it look soft and rather grainy. However, apart from the noise, the image quality is reasonably good: the 1.85:1 widescreen image is anamorphically enhanced, there are no scratches or dirt in the print, and the colors look natural and pleasing to the eye. In the end, the image quality clocks in at slightly above average.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack provides an engaging listening experience for The Magdalene Sisters. The dialogue is clear and easy to understand, although there were a few moments where it wasn't perfect. The sound as a whole is natural and clean, with no distortion or harshness even in scenes with a lot of variation in volume levels (such as people shrieking and shouting). There's also a subtle but effective use of the surround channels throughout the film to create an immersive feeling for the film.
A French dubbed track is also provided, along with French and Spanish subtitle options.
The Magdalene Sisters has one special feature, and it's a great one: it includes the original documentary that inspired the film, Sex in a Cold Climate. This 50-minute program from 1998 opened up the subject of the Magdalene Asylums, showing interviews with women who had suffered in the Asylums and managed, one way or another, to get free to England. It's an excellent feature to include with the film, and certainly adds to the quality of the DVD overall.
The Magdalene Sisters is an incredibly powerful film, with all its elements contributing to a dazzling whole: outstanding performances from the entire cast, a gripping and extremely well-paced story, and extremely polished cinematography and editing. This is not a film to miss, and it richly deserves its DVDTalk Collector Series rating.