The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

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Released 11-Feb-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Menu Audio
Theatrical Trailer-1.85:1, 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 (1:57)
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2002
Running Time 114:32 (Case: 119)
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Peter Mullan
Momentum Pictures
Magna Home Entertainment
Starring Geraldine McEwan
Anne-Marie Duff
Dorothy Duffy
Nora-Jane Noone
Eileen Walsh
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI ? Music Craig Armstrong

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.75:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    It seems that just about every week another member of the organised religions is dragged through the media with yet another scandal, many involving paedophilia. At times you do wonder where it is all heading and when is it all going to end. Well, unfortunately we have at least one more film that exposes an aspect of the Catholic Church that the Vatican was rather keen on the world not knowing about. Based upon true events, The Magdalene Sisters brings into the wider public conscience a story of what was tantamount to organised slavery by the Catholic Church in particular, but organised religion in general (as I am quite sure others had similar institutions).

    The film might have outraged the Vatican but the stunning part of the story is that many women who suffered incarceration and abuse in the Magdalene laundries have said that the film in no way goes far enough in capturing the abuse and degradation that they suffered in the system. Frankly, if this does not go far enough in depicting the degradation the women suffered, the Vatican has an awful lot of explaining to do... The Magdalene laundries first emerged in the eighteenth century as asylums, a way of dealing with prostitution. Originally they were mainly for short term "guests" as a means of keeping the prostitutes off the streets. Over time, the asylums came under the control of the Catholic Church and were converted into laundries, serving the need of the church itself as well as commercial clients. As the commercial activities increased, the need for more labour became extreme and the nature of the "guests" changed. Far from being prostitutes, the Magdalene laundries became a repository for women of allegedly dubious morals, offering them the prospect of hard labour in order to secure their redemption in the eyes of the Church.

    Dubious morals included women who had been raped, orphan girls reaching an age where sex might become a problem or simply unwanted daughters, rather than just women who committed the mortal sin of engaging in sex outside of wedlock. Something in the region of 30,000 women were to suffer incarceration in the Magdalene laundries, many of whom were there for long periods of time. Basically once you were in there, the chances of getting out were remote. Once in the laundries, not only were the women expected to provide labour for menial chores for no recompense whatsoever but they were also subject to the abuses of the church itself. Such abuse extended to providing sexual gratification to priests as well as degradation and abuse by the sisters. In real terms, the women became slaves and the parallels between the degradations they suffered and the degradations suffered by the Negroes in America in the same periods are very clear. Many of the women who entered the Magdalene laundries became institutionalised in the same way as long-term prison inmates. Many died in the service of the laundries, but the world knew very little about it.

    Perhaps the reason for the story of the Magdalene laundries becoming public knowledge was due to events in Dublin in the early 1990's. The story that is told involves a convent run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity called High Park. The order sold part of the convent grounds for a rather large sum of money, the area being redeveloped for town houses. Unfortunately, it was discovered during the redevelopment that the area contained the graves of some 133 women, women who had been incarcerated in the laundry attached to the convent. The wounds had been opened and the story slowly emerged as to what truly happened in the laundries - and for how long.

    Whilst many of the laundries existed in Ireland, to characterise the issue as a solely Irish one is false, for such laundries existed in both England and Scotland. To suggest that this was a problem from an earlier age is also not correct: the last Magdalene Laundry closed in October, 1996. What can be safely said is that even though the laundries were not the creation of the Catholic Church, they reached the height of their despicability under the auspices of the Catholic Church. If you want to read more about the Magdalene Laundries, you could do worse than check out two stories published by the Guardian newspaper in England: In God's Name and The Sisters Of No Mercy

    The Magdalene Sisters is broadly the story of four women: Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is the hard-headed head of the institution, with a mean streak that extends as far as brutalising the women for little sane reason other than the nebulous. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is a young lady who has the misfortune to be raped by her cousin during a family wedding, had the temerity to make it known to her family and ends up being dumped in the laundry by her priest for bringing shame upon her family. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) is an orphan whose sole reason for incarceration, at the hands of the orphanage principal, is the fact that she flirts with the boys who hang around the fence of her orphanage. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) had the misfortune to conceive a child and give birth to that child outside of wedlock, with the result that her parents will have nothing to do with her and she is consigned to the laundry immediately after giving birth and being forced to give up her child for adoption.

    The film starts with the stories of these three unfortunate girls, and their arrival at the laundry. What follows is the story of life in that laundry, mainly revolving around them but also involving some of the other inmates. Those inmates include the likes of Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a woman of limited intelligence incarcerated to protect herself from men, whose systematic fall into madness is portrayed quite vividly in the film. We follow these women as they adjust to life in the laundry and the events that go around them. Obviously we get to see their attempts to escape the institution, which in one instance sees Bernadette making sexual advances to a young man on the delivery run to the laundry in exchange for a guarantee that he will take her away from the laundry. The eventual means of escape for the women involved are varied and reflect the very nature of the injustices exacted within the walls of the institution.

   I really do not want to give too much more of the plot away as this is perhaps one of those films that is best approached with as limited a number of preconceptions as possible. A lack of any preconceptions will perhaps heighten the reaction to the events as they unfold on the screen. That would certainly seem to have been the reaction at the Venice Film Festival in 2002, when the film was awarded the Golden Lion, as well as incurring the wrath of the Vatican. The story itself is well crafted, although perhaps slightly less compelling than it should be in order to enable the more upbeat ending. Personally, I would have preferred a far more downbeat ending, to provide a deeper sense of despair to the film, but that is nothing more than a personal preference. As it is, the film is near enough two hours of compelling viewing that will certainly leave you pondering the incongruity of a Christian institution being anything but Christian in nature.

    Where the film really scores is in the terrific cast. There is a consistency in excellence in the cast and the main performers offer up some of the finest acting offerings you are likely to see. With some, at times, terrific cinematography coupled with some firm direction, on a technical level the film is of the highest quality. More is the pity that the film is at the moment only available for rent, but if you want something a little more serious and thought-provoking for your viewing diet, then this is well worth while checking out.

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Transfer Quality


    A recent film, so therefore we would expect a very good transfer. To a large extent, that is what we have here.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.75:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced. The choose of ratio seems a bit odd as the theatrical ratio was 1.85:1 and therefore 1.78:1 would make a bit more sense.

    The film was obviously shot with some specific goals in mind, and the transfer reflects those goals. Foremost amongst them was clearly to get as much detail into the picture as possible, and in that respect there is no complaint. Aside from one or two places where I am guessing a slightly softer look was required, this is a very detailed transfer, not ultra sharp but certainly sharp enough to make pausing the playback very easy on the eye. There was also a clear intent to get the look to be entirely reminiscent of the 1960's and then to push the gritty, dark nature of the subject matter. This is reflected in a dark tone to the film that really is very successful to my mind of ramping up the nature of the subject matter. Shadow detail is very good overall, even allowing for some of the darker scenes in the film being a little less than perfect. There is a slight presence of grain that is noticeable here and there, but nothing that is in the slightest bit distracting. The only time I really had to force myself to ignore it was around 109:30. Otherwise, clarity is spot on, with nothing at all hidden in this transfer.

    If you are looking for bright, primary colours you are definitely barking up the wrong tree here. Even the greens at times seemed to be darkened in order to push the dark tone of the film more. Despite the dreary nature of the material, the colours remain very vibrant and wonderfully natural. Lots of darker tones all done really well ensure that there are no complaints about the saturation. There is no issue with colour bleed, either.

    There did not appear to be any MPEG artefacts in the transfer, although there is one pan shot at 70:07 where there is a loss of resolution in the picture. I would suggest however that this is source related. Despite the sharpness of the transfer, aliasing only becomes an issue on a few occasions - 32:52 on the car radiator and 58:04 and 58:30 on the washing lines being the sort of examples to be seen. It is not really that noticeable, and it is the only issue with film-to-video artefacts to be found. There might have been a few flecks floating around but that would be the extent of the film artefacts in the transfer - nothing much to bother about at all.

    This is a single layered, single sided DVD so there is no layer change to worry about.

    Rather regrettably there are no subtitles on this DVD.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There are two soundtracks on this DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. I listened to the six channel soundtrack in its entirety, but only briefly sampled the two channel effort.

    You should understand that some of the accents here are rather broad and in particular Geraldine McEwan adopts a rather high pitched voice, too. The result is not the clearest speaking voice you will ever hear and occasionally you need to be very attentive to what is being said. If you don't pay attention, you will miss what is being said. However, this is the way the film is supposed to sound so don't blame it on the transfer. Otherwise, everything comes up well and is easily understood. There is nothing in the way of audio sync problems in the transfer.

    The original music comes from Craig Armstrong and a d*** good effort it is too. Not the most compelling score thematically, where it really, well, scores, is in the way it evokes the era of the film so well (it is set in the 1960's). A lot of melancholy, a lot of pathos and a lot of lamenting - all of which guides the film so well.

    The main issue with the six channel soundtrack is that in the music in the opening sequence, the low frequency channel has been mixed way too prominent in the mix and tends to drown out everything else in the soundtrack. The result is unnatural sounding and really sets the film off in a bad way. Thankfully, this only lasts a few minutes or so and then everything settles down into a really terrific, natural sound that captures the textures of the time and place so well. There is just the right sort of echoy sound to go with the dormitory scenes at night, really capturing the feel of the softened movement of the women. Surround encoding is not perfect, but is still very good. Nothing at all flashy, for the film does not need it, but a lot of subtle ambience that is well noticed when you shift to and fro with the two channel soundtrack. The sound is really clean and open, taking full advantage of the high bit rate to give us a great audio style to the film.

    The two channel soundtrack is very good too, not very dynamic obviously but clean, clear and open. I will continue to ponder the merits of including such a soundtrack when the six channel is so good in general.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There is little on offer here, even by rental standards.


   An interesting presentation with some modest audio enhancement.

Theatrical Trailer (1:57)

    Of excellent quality, this is actually one of those rare enough instances where everything is not given away by the trailer. The presentation is in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which is 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    At the current time, the film does not appear to be available nor announced in Region 1. The film has been released in Region 2, with the UK release being noteworthy for the fact that, aside from being available to purchase, it includes the following additional extras:

    The audio commentary is apparently a beauty by all accounts I have found and in itself would be the determining factor in favour of the Region 2 release. The rest just makes the decision even more obvious.


    The Magdalene Sisters is another great film to emanate from the non-Hollywood regions of the world. Whilst the Vatican has been rather indignant of the film, the simple fact is that another indictment of organised religion has been let loose upon the world's population. Whilst it is perhaps not the sort of film that one can watch for mindless entertainment on a regular basis, it certainly is the sort of film that will fill the need for deep, thought-provoking brain food on an occasional basis in the best possible way. Well worthwhile checking this one out next time you are down the video store.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-1600, using RGB output
DisplayLoewe Aconda 9381ZW. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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