It has been obligatory in recent years for film critics to invoke the sacred name of the German-American master Douglas Sirk when discussing the colour schemes and subversive implications of everything from Satin Rouge (2002) to Far From Heaven (2002). Suddenly, melodrama has become a respected and revered genre among arthouse moviegoers.
It is a safe bet that no one will be rushing to mention Sirk in reference to writer-director Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters. This ham-fisted, tasteless attempt to grasp the tragedy of Ireland's notorious, Catholic-run Magdalene Asylums for young women is the kind of film that gives melodrama a bad name all over again.
As an actor, Mullan worked with Ken Loach on My Name is Joe (1998). But, apart from a few moments of vivid realism, there are precious few signs of Loach's good influence upon The Magdalene Sisters.
Mullan blunders in with a sensationalist tale of four feisty women in the 1960s, all of who suffer horribly at the hands of twisted Sisters and beastly Fathers.
The historical raw material is, of course, compelling (Mullan was inspired by the Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate). The Magdalene Sisters cannot help but retain a residue of the subject's inherently gruesome interest. But Mullan has nothing at all to say about the ideology underpinning Catholicism, or why its most extreme adherents treat both themselves and others in insane, soul-destroying ways.
The young cast are game: Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Annie-Marie Duff and Eileen Walsh manage to impress as they give themselves over to the hothouse atmosphere of cheap hysteria that Mullan whips up. Finally, the movie becomes laughable, especially when it is capped off by the worst closing freeze-frame I have seen in many a year.
There is one memorable scene in which Crispina (Walsh) snaps and begins yelling at one of her superiors, "You are not a man of God!" She shouts it about fifty times. This is the only moment when Mullan finds a tone – far beyond Sirkian melodrama but no less valid for that – that suits the emotions unleashed by his story.
© Adrian Martin April 2003