This movie has some pretty grim stuff. In a scene from The Magdalene Sisters, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) tells a young woman something like all men are sinners and that women should guard themselves from these sinners. While cutting that girl’s desirable hair. She would also call one of the inmates, Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) ‘the likes of you,’ disregarding the miraculous redemption of her titular patron saint however. She blocks many layers of cognitive dissonance, that women do have sexual desires that aren’t necessarily sinful or that her abuses are more depraved than the sex she’s repressing.
The film is about the order of Irish Catholic nuns who, in the mid to the late 20th century, run a laundry delivery service. In these institutions these girls received physical and sexual abuse and exploitation from the nuns, driving some of these women into suicide attempts, insanity and causing harm towards themselves and others. They denied their rights to emancipation even into adulthood, separated these young women from their families, children, friends and contexts. They’re not even encouraged from socializing with each other and are forced to sleep on mattresses on the attic floor. Although I’m not really sure who’s at fault here. We can’t blame the girls for doing things that they didn’t know were wrong. Nor the community who turns a blind eye like we do on the goods and services we consume. The nuns didn’t really kidnap these girls. It’s also their parents or guardians – Bernadette (Nora-Jean Noone) grew up in an orphanage where the nuns handed her over to the Magdalenes – that refer them to these places.
Bernadette’s origin story isn’t the only one being told in the film’s first five minutes, eventually unfolding the wanted, unwanted pregnancies and sexual indiscretions that these young, single women have had that has led them to be confined within the convent for at least one half of the 1960’s, when Protestant Britain and the rest of the developed world was loosening up.
There’s something matter-of-fact of the film’s cinematography – dominated by the dumpy and even fascist swatches of blue and brown in the costumes – and mood, letting the cruelty do the talking instead of adding any sort of context or directorial indulgences. The shots aren’t as beautiful on the small screen and it takes time to appreciate what’s within the frame, populated by objects, props or the characters faces. It’s like these characters – even the innocent women – and the institution itself shroud the film in darkness.
Sister Bridget has composure when she’s parading the girls outside, calm even when Crispina (Eileen Walsh, Britain and Ireland’s version of Heather Matarazzo) shouts the fiery “You’re not a man of God” more than forty times. Sometimes, like a scene after Margaret confronts her, she stops to think about herself yet continues on without changing. Nonetheless, she still ruins Miss Marple for everybody.
But the real treat here, or the silver lining in this very dark could, is the younger cast. My money on who would be famous was on Noone, who is skinnier than I remembered and looks like a punk rock girl I hung out with in high school. She has the same big feline spark, from the moment her big dark eyes flirted with the boys across the fence like a young Bettie Page to being the most misanthropic inmate in the laundry. She steals Crispina’s medallion. She also tells one of the oldest inmates (earlier in the film this character is an intermediary between the inmates and nuns, yelling at the younger ones to go back to work) that the laundry is the only thing that the nuns cared about and that even the most docile inmates didn’t matter to them, breaking that dying woman’s heart.
But it was Duff, now Mrs. James MacAvoy, who moved on to do bigger things. With that hindsight in mind I began to inspect her character and performance in this repeat viewing. She’s not the sluttiest, the most mentally vulnerable nor the insipidly prettiest, because those roles are for Bernadette, Crispina and Rose/Patricia (Dorothy Duffy). She, however, mends and minds the insanity that is brewing within the girls although yes, she gives Bernadette and her brother Eammon some tough love as well. She also serves as the film’s eyes, reacting to the world around her, very much aware of its changes and evolution despite being forcefully cloistered. She overlooks a wide set of hills during spring time and almost gets into a strange man’s car before she returns to the convent without getting caught. She watches her revenge against a priest having effects beyond her control or observant of instances when the girls start picking on each other. She is the film’s conscience and she might never be better than her earlier self in this movie.
Normally in films the audience has to wait five minutes to suck us in, but instead Nowhere Boy ‘wows’ us in the beginning with its cinematography, and we have director Sam Taylor-Wood and cinematographer Seamus McGravey to thank for that. This is the fifties, after all. I also kept imagining the film in black and white because of the photographic quality of the shots. Yet colour fits better in capturing the bright, breezy energy of a much younger John Lennon (Aaron Johnson). The film depicts beauty without making its contemplation necessary, since the audience follows a rebellious schoolboy around his hometown at the same time.
Then comes characters with emotional resonance and dimension. John is funny, selfish and gives and gets love unconventionally. The darkness within his cheery mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) appears within her first real encounter of her son in years, as Duff’s impresses with her characterization of Julia as a broken vessel of repression. John’s aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) is stern while trying to please a teenager who sometimes takes her for granted. All three powerfully contend with changing allegiances, portraying human irrationality brought on by love without making their characters seem inconsistent.
I also like how they can sometimes miss other characters’ cues. When John’s new friend and band mate Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) talks about how the latter’s mother ‘would have loved’ his music, he doesn’t at first understand what he’s hinting at. Or when Paul plays the banjo in a solemn gathering at Julia’s house. The script perfectly captures the fragmented relationships. The young (and young at heart like Julia) who have strong feeling and angry impulses, innocent, sometimes ignorant about others which, thankfully, doesn’t stop them from trying to connect with each other.
Lastly, this movie is secretly about the 80’s, or what might have influenced English-speaking culture decades later from the film’s setting, although I don’t really have enough space here to explain that. Of course, it was interesting to watch John dressing up like Elvis or Buddy Holly. The British borrow from American rock ‘n’ roll icons, and as we watch this film we remember that it shows the first stop to John and Paul’s evolution, their sound and look changing within and after their seminal band’s run.