Steve Humphries’ Sex in a Cold Climate , a documentary denouncing the Magdalene Asylums, which were operated by Catholic nuns in Ireland for over 100 years, caused an uproar when it was televised in England in March 1998 as part of Channel Four’s Witness series. An estimated three million people watched the documentary, one of the highest figures ever recorded for the series. A help line was set up, which received calls from almost 450 women who had experienced abuse and trauma through the Magdalene Asylums and the Catholic Church. The documentary was blacklisted by the Irish network RTE and to this date has never been officially aired in Ireland.
Mr. Humphries has produced over 80 social-history documentaries and written 20 books based on ordinary people’s life stories. But he insists that Sex in a Cold Climate is the most important story he’s told yet. “The shame of being a Magdalene still runs so deep in Ireland nobody would [talk]. It was only women who’d later escaped to England who were prepared to talk. This is the film I’m most proud of. There were Magdalene Asylums all over the world, especially in Catholic countries, so this film has relevance to a lot of people.”
One of the viewers of Mr. Humphries’ controversial 1998 film was Peter Mullan, the noted actor ( Trainspotting , Braveheart , My Name Is Joe , The Claim ) and writer-director of Orphans (1999). Mr. Mullan was so inspired by the documentary that he decided to direct own his fictional version on the subject, entitled The Magdalene Sisters , which was recently released in the U.S. to rave reviews. Though it’s been attacked by the Vatican and other Catholic organizations, the film has won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival and acclaim by critics in Italy, Scotland and, surprisingly, Ireland.
At this point, I must confess that the thought of reviewing The Magdalene Sisters was not at all appealing, despite its favorable advance buzz. It’s the same problem that I have with films about the Nazi Holocaust, namely that there is too much unalloyed evil on one side of the story to permit any moral shadings or dramatic complexity to come through. Or at least that’s what I thought then.
Before seeing The Magdalene Sisters , I decided it might be interesting to watch Sex in a Cold Climate first-after all, it was the televised documentary that inspired Mr. Mullan to undertake the writing and direction of The Magdalene Sisters . Thanks to Gary Crowdus at the Cinema Guild Inc., I was privileged to see Sex in a Cold Climate right before I visited the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas to see The Magdalene Sisters .
As it happens, Sex in a Cold Climate proved to be so astonishingly revelatory that The Magdalene Sisters , by contrast, played like an overly conventional prison film. But if Mr. Mullan had been any more realistic in his fictional depiction of the hell on earth that the Magdalene Asylums fostered, moviegoers would have streamed out of the theater, their eyes glazed with grief, their stomachs upset, their souls scourged with guilt.
So what really went on in the Magdalene Asylums? In some cases, the women-many in their early teens-washed and scrubbed and ironed laundry from 6 in the morning to 6 at night, six or seven days a week, with a day off on Sunday (for incessant prayer, of course) and a day off for Christmas. The laundries were very profitable for the church, but the female “sinners” were paid nothing for years and decades of hard labor.
The Magdalenes were not arrested, tried or convicted for any crime; they were simply “detained,” like the almost-forgotten inmates of Guantánamo Bay.
In the mid-19th century, secular asylums in Ireland were taken over by the Catholic Church and converted into Magdalene Asylums. They were originally intended to serve as a refuge for prostitutes, but their numbers grew, along with the number of abandoned children due to the Potato Famine. The industrial orphanages that arose as a consequence were exposed long ago for their cruelties in the treatment meted out to their helpless charges. Yet amazingly, the last Magdalene Asylum didn’t close until 1996.
Many good Irish citizens lived in proximity to the Magdalene Asylums. Did they know anything about the atrocities transpiring in their midst? There was virtually no media interest in what went on behind the walls of these institutions; no one’s conscience was stirred, no disturbing reality was exposed.
These supposed Brides of Christ took charge of women from poor or nonexistent families, some for having children out of wedlock, others for having “provoked” their own rapes by possessing potentially “sinful” attributes, still others for simply being judged too dangerously attractive to avoid being plunged into sin with pitifully susceptible males. Curiously, oversexed boys and men were never consigned to monasteries to repent of their sins, and as we’ve now come to know, misbehaving priests were never, ever disciplined.
Sex in a Cold Climate assembles the recollections of four middle-aged to elderly former Magdalenes recounting their varied traumatic institutional misadventures. Film purists tend to dismiss this kind of movie-making as nothing but static “talking heads.” But in this case, what talk! What heads! There are also many iconic images of Mary Magdalene, the biblical prostitute who repented her sins and was accepted and redeemed by Jesus. Images of the Madonna also come into the picture.
Now, I grew up with a fleeting acquaintance with the interminable rituals of the Greek Orthodox Church and its two-dimensional Byzantine icons of Christ on the Cross, his disciples, his Virgin Mother and, I suppose, Mary Magdalene herself. But I was much more deeply affected by my mother’s frequent consolation (or admonition-I’m still not sure which): Spelled phonetically, it went something like ” Ee Panayitsa vlepee ,” which, translated, means “The Madonna watches.” The point is that deep down-way deep-I still regard myself as a Christian: The ideas of salvation and redemption even extend to the poetics of dramatic narrative.
Yet I also believe that the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, have been bad news for women for more than 2,000 years. It’s easy enough to condemn the Magdalene Sisters as cruel miscreants from the recent past, but the universal virus of sexism persists to this day. It’s therefore slightly amusing to see the great humanitarians in the Bush administration preaching to Muslims around the world about the rights of women, when the administration’s own fanatical positions on abstinence, abortion, birth control, stem-cell research and all other radical bugaboos are designed to subvert the rights and very dignity of women.
Phyllis Valentine, Brigid Young, Martha Cooney and Christina Mulcahy are the four eloquent real-life Magdalene “penitents” featured in Sex in a Cold Climate . Still photos of the women as young girls make their own devastating contributions to the recorded memories of these forever-embittered survivors.
Ms. Young describes how a priest at confession masturbated on her dress and then walked away as if nothing had happened; the young virginal girl was too inexperienced to know if anything had. Ms. Valentine was delivered to the asylum because she was considered “too pretty” and therefore a moral danger to herself and others. Ms. Cooney was incarcerated after she complained that a cousin had sexually molested her. It was her fault, of course. But most moving of all was the story of Christina Mulcahy, who agreed to talk about her experiences only because a diagnosis of terminal cancer had freed her from the prospect of any long-term stigma she’d inevitably have to carry. Mulcahy was torn away from her illegitimate baby while she was still breast-feeding him, on the grounds that she was an unfit mother. The baby was placed for adoption with a “good Catholic family,” and Mulcahy was whisked off to the Magdalene Asylum with baby’s milk still in her breasts. She searched for her abducted son for much of the rest of her life, and was finally reunited with him shortly before her death in 1997.
Mr. Mullan’s fictional treatment of this subject in The Magdalene Sisters has much to commend. His own four penitents, all composite portraits with certain resemblances to the women in Sex in a Cold Climate , range from Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), a rape victim blamed for inciting her rapist, to Rose (Dorothy Duffy), whose baby is seized from her during breast-feeding, to Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), whose only sin is being a pretty orphan bantering with all the boys hanging around the fence, to the most tragic figure of all, Crispina (Eileen Walsh), an unwed mother whose sister adopts the little boy, often bringing him to the gates so that his mother can see him. After being seduced by a priest and raising an outcry, Crispina is dragged off to an insane asylum, where she eventually dies of anorexia.
The performances of these four women are all first-rate, as is the portrayal of the malignantly cheerful Sister Bridget by Geraldine McEwan. Mary Gordon, in her thoughtful analysis of the film from an Irish Catholic perspective in the Aug. 3 New York Times , complained that Ms. McEwan’s role was a “heavy-handed burlesque,” and that she’d have been “more chilled if [Ms. McEwan] had seemed less psychotic, more calmly sure in her role as handmaiden of the Lord.”
Mr. Mullan told Mr. Crowdus that he based the character of Sister Bridget on a nun he’d known in London, a woman with a sarcastic nature cloaked in a smile. This proto-Bridget also loved Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict in The Bell’s of St. Mary’s (1945), as does the fictional Bridget in Mr. Mullan’s screenplay. These contrasting views of Sister Bridget are a somewhat grotesque replica of what Al Franken has ridiculed as the “fair and balanced” issue. Obviously, the polemical aims of Sex in a Cold Climate and The Magdalene Sisters do not allow for an equal-time rebuttal from the Catholic Church or the Magdalene Sisters themselves, even if one were requested or available. Certainly, as Ms. Gordon suggests, not all nuns are cruel and psychotic. Think of Mother Theresa and many others.
Curiously, one of the Magdalene Sisters-who considered herself more nurturing than her colleagues in the asylum-left the order and wrote a play about her experiences, making the point that the more good-hearted nuns were not encouraged to serve there.
Nonetheless, the problem remains that the prison-genre devices Mr. Mullan employs to dramatize such hellish injustice tend to dilute its overriding horror: the complicity between society at large and a so-called holy organization that fostered a class of women steeped in shame and self-loathing, preventing all but a very few from finally bearing witness to their suffering.