In 1960s Ireland the Catholic church maintained the nun-run Magdalene Laundries. They housed young women who had the misfortune to have given birth outside marriage. The women were thought to be "no better than they should be", or even just "simple-minded".
These institutions were little better than prisons. The girls were made to work for no pay, subject to physical and mental humiliation and, in some cases, sexually abused. In return, the nuns prayed for their souls. The laundries lasted until the 1970s; the last one finally shut as recently as 1996.
Peter Mullan's BAFTA-nominated, Venice-winning film distils the life of a handful of the thousands of unfortunates who passed through these institutions. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) was raped by a cousin at a wedding; Rose and Crispina (Dorothy Duffy and Eileen Walsh) are un-wed mothers; and Bernadette's (Nora-Jane Noone) innocent association with boys marks her as a soul in mortal danger. They and the others suffer degradation at the hands of head nun Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) and their only hope, their only dream, is of escape.
Apart from McEwan, the director cast relative unknowns, with the girls all outstanding, particularly Noone as the rebellious Bernadette and Walsh as the heart-breakingly tragic Crispina, who kowtows to authority in return for a stolen glance through the gates at her toddler son. He doesn't cast them as paragons of virtuous comradeship; they fight among themselves, betray each other and form cliques, but always unite against the common enemy. And they gain some small revenges: an abusive priest has his vestments laced with nettle leaves; his discomfort one of the light moments with which the director leavens the film.
Predictably, the Catholic church, particularly in America, was up in arms about the film, calling it anti-Catholic. Perhaps it would be better described as pro-humanity: a film that unblinkingly portrays what Mullan called: "one of the great injustices of the second half of the 20th century".