The Magdalen Sisters

Peter Mullen’s brilliant, if biased direction shapes our anger for the four young Irish girls who land in the cruel laundries of the Magdalen Sisters. In the 1960’s, Catholic girls who were deemed promiscuous, pregnant or potentially provocative were sent into servitude in the Magdalen Laundries, a slave-labour business run by the Catholic Church in certain Irish communities. In the opening sequence, where Margaret’s fate is determined, the setting (in the mise-en-scene) of a wedding uses hardly any dialogue, to build up tension with sound.

The diagetic sound of a priest’s voice precedes the opening shot of a close up of a drum that shadows the priest’s hands. The punitive image on the drum illustrates the harsh side of religion. The hand maintains a beat that dominates the wedding, making the priest the orchestrator of emotions. A cut to the back of the drum, offers a close up on the hand which will control destinies, especially women’s, in this orthodox Irish Catholic community. A pan up to a close up of the priest’s sweaty, consumed face with his eyes closed, shows his involvement in his own voice.

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It also prepares the audience for the way he will close his eyes to women’s needs. A series of medium shots reveal all kinds of women standing still at the wedding captivated by the priest’s performance. The editing matches their ardent looks to his performance. They admire him but his eyes are closed and his music and the ironically religious lyrics, consume him. The mise-en-scene brilliantly reveals his oblivious control. A cut to the young bride, who’s also captivated by the priest, is followed by a close-up of her holding her husband’s hand.

The framing shows more of the bride’s white dress (in the mise-en-scene), which symbolizes innocence and purity and emphasizes the virginal wedding required by this particular society. The pace of the drumming increases. The diagetic sound of the priest’s voice still dominates. There is no dialogue; as all are controlled and silenced by the music. It is a powerful message to the audience of who s calling the tune and keeps us aware of the Priest’s role. A cut back to the priest drumming as the pace speeds up, closes in on him as he kisses his drum.

The drum is the traditional instrument to motivate men in war therefore it is symbolic of the build up of violence. A medium shot of a neat young girl and a leering boy shows him whispering in her ear. The editing alerts the audience to this couple. The Catholic priest is supposed to be celibate therefore his love for the drum defines links to the forbidden love of these cousins. Margaret’s costume suggests she’s a good clean girl and her look doesn’t anticipate what her cousin really wants.

A cut to the girl passing on the whisper to her friend is followed by a coy smile to the boy but then she looks back at the priest. None of their words can be heard over the drumbeat, which is still accelerating, signals that something dramatic is about to happen. A pan to the priest’s face highlights his negative sweaty rapture linking to sexual excitement in the priest and boy, by implication. The supposedly celibate priest’s immorality is exposed later in the narrative. As the song finishes, diagetic sound of the audience clapping is heard over a cut to a medium shot of the young boy and girl leaving.

The camera pans across the room to the priest’s face as he nods, signifying the end of his song and the beginning of her ordeal. Because everyone is captivated by the music, no one sees Kevin lead Margaret away. We only think he’s going to tell her a secret or show her something. A cut to them entering a narrow room frames her innocent remark, ” Well what did you want to show me? Come on Kevin what is the secret? ” We just don’t anticipate the way he turns on her forcing a kiss she doesn’t want. Her instant angry rejection of his pass at her indicates she is not leading him on.

As she struggles to leave the room a cut reveals the back of Margaret followed by a quick cut to her slapping him and a cut back to the front of her cousin’s face that shows fear of Margaret’s reaction. A medium shot of Kevin leaving the room closing the door behind him makes us feel its over but as Margaret enters the frame to open the door, she is suddenly hit in the face as Kevin charges back in the room with a diagetic smash of the door smacking hard into her face. A series of quick cuts of close ups of Margaret’s struggle to get free but Kevin pushes her to the floor and rapes her.

Diagetic sound creates the insensitive brutality in thuds and bangs. This is the first time we hear dialogue, and it comes as a shock to the audience because of its content, the way its delivered and the violent nature of his act. She pleads with him but he just covers up her mouth, as all girls will be silenced in the narrative. It is shocking and upsetting, as he’s so cruel and uncaring. A cut to the celebration downstairs frames a medium shot of a young boy sitting alone covering his ears to the loud music, which shows the power of the music over the characters.

They don’t know what’s happened upstairs and his gesture suggests something being shut out. A close up of the guitarist’s foot as it taps along to the music pans across the floor to a hanging pendant of a cross idly left off over a glass of beer. This symbolizes (in the mise-en-scene) the Catholic Church is faith on thin ice. A cut to Kevin entering the room in the background and making his way through the dancing crowd shows nervous fear through the way he takes a big sip and turns around to watch the rest of the room enjoy the celebration.

In the background Margaret enters the frame and Kevin immediately turns his back to her. A cut to Margaret’s friend who pushes her way through the crowd shows her sit next to Margaret and we are sympathetic as her teary face is worrying. No dialogue is heard but the audience understands the conversation between the two as Margaret confides her ordeal tearfully. A cut back to Kevin shows he tries to ignore the conversation between Margaret and her friend and focus on the music, which is still engrossing the rest.

As we deduce Margaret tells her friend about her ordeal and the rest of the room dance around them the vision of Margaret is wiped by the dancers, making us more uncertain. A cut to a close up of Kevin as Margaret’s friend approaches him in disgust, makes us presume she questions him. Editing choreographs how the details are passed around from now on but only to the male authority figures. A cut back to Kevin, his father and Margaret’s father looks like he denies the rape. A cut to Margaret’s mother reveals her coldly ignoring her daughter’s tears.

The mother’s still gaze shows that as a woman in the Catholic community you don’t have a say in what’s going on and you don’t question the authority of the males. Margaret’s father’s immediate reaction is to go directly to the priest and they walk into the back room. A cut back to the mother as she watches her husband leave and a close up of Margaret and her friend as they watch her father leave, indicates the men have taken over but they shut them selves away and don’t even consult Margaret or her mother.

Margaret’s expression shows confusion, as she hasn’t had any involvement in the discussion and we start to dread the outcome. A cut to a door in the back allows us to glimpse between a small gap of the priest and father. Margaret’s father points her out: The priest looks out as the door closes shut. This is one of the many times doors are closed on Margaret, and for the first time she realises her place in society. A cut back to Margaret’s face as she watches Kevin leave the room with smug satisfaction on his face, makes us angry.

A cut back to a close up of the father and priest as they emerge shows the sweat on their faces increasing tension. The constant glances at Margaret indicate to the audience that the outcome of the discussion will not be fair. A cut back to Margaret as she watches her father in distress, is followed by a point of view shot of her father with horrified anger on his face as he stares intently at his daughter. A cut back to a close up of Margaret reveals she realizes it has all gone wrong as she feels the anger from her father. The music fades.

The diagetic sound of bagpipe note fades into what sounds like a car horn cueing a cut to a long shot of a black car coming towards us. The sudden cut to the car coming to take Margaret away prepares us for the sudden harsh decision to cast her out. Mullen uses the film codes to make us feel how horribly unfair and unfeeling this is, so we are set up to expect the similar destiny for all the other girls condemned as sinners by fathers and fathers. Mullen has weighted our sympathies strongly but it is effective as we are so shocked and involved from the outset.