I am an Irish Roman Catholic and, when it comes to Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, I agree with the Vatican. I agree with the Catholic League. I agree that this film is full of hate. Full of hate for the Catholic Church, and for the Irish families and communities which complied and welcomed the incarcerations of their daughters and young wards. Full of a hate young girls fostered in themselves as their innocence was exploited by young men, and as authority figures laid the blame at their burgeoning sexuality, fearful of the taint which would be placed on their name if they did not allow their loved ones to be turned into prisoners.

There is little balance here; Mullan wants to attack, manipulate, and represent the torture and suppression these women endured well into the 1970s, not enter into a dialogue. Even his leads, the girls who suffer the beatings, bloodied eyes, dehumanisation and hard labour are torn inside, believing this is what they deserve and that this well-decorated gulag is better than the world outside the laundry walls. Mullan’s film is full of anger and righteous indignation, full of justified hate. He pummels your emotions unwaveringly. And thank the Lord for that.

The opening scene had me up in my seat, and in tears. At a wedding reception, a young boy in his Sunday best sits in a corner with his fingers in his ears. Over on a small raised stage the parish priest is thumping out a beat on his bodhrán, while upstairs a teenage girl, Margaret (Anne Marie Duff), is being raped by her cousin. When she goes down and tells her newly wed sister what has happened, she tells her father, who tells his brother, who asks the rapist, his son, what his version of the events are, and then the priest is involved. This internal investigation is drowned out by the Irish music celebrating two people’s holy matrimony. We bounce around the room from oblivious faces to those, like Margaret’s mother, who are aware but ignoring what is going on. Then we cut to Margaret’s face as she realises that her cousin, her attacker, will not be reprimanded but protected and she has been blamed for shaming the family on their special day. In the cold dawn, while her siblings sleep, woken by her father, she is driven away by the priest.

We witness many more reasons why other girls are sent to this organised hell, where you lose your full name, your voice, your freedom and your femininity. As Geraldine McEwan’s Sister Bridget inaugurates them to her regime, we are reminded less of The Shawshank Redemption’s (1994) bible-thumping, sadistic prison warden and more of R. Lee Emery’s drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987) – taking away everything that is individual, everything that is creative and everything that is human with a sardonic threat of a speech. Kubrick wanted to see how young men could be turned into cold, efficient killing machines; Mullan wants to relate how vibrant, intelligent young women could be turned into subservient, unquestioning workers. The parallel is continued with the black marble wall of women’s first names in the title sequence (inmates of the laundries), a visual match to the war memorials for those who died in the US’s military failure of the same period. Yet Mullan does not allow a system reliant on fear and productivity to win. Some of the girls might not survive the psychological and physical attacks, and many submit, but a few escape, damaged but alive and free. It is the only acceptable conclusion for the audience. After ninety minutes of despair, we need to know that these girls struggled on after the traumas, and we need to know these Sisters of Mercy no longer continue their work.

The Magdalene Sisters might take the form of a biopic and be based on testimonials, but Margaret and the other prisoners are amalgamations of their real life counterparts’ experiences. This is a smart play on Mullan’s part. If he were to name specific individuals, or recreate definite incidents, he would open himself up to the nitpicking attacks of the naysayers. Why allow censorial organisations like the Catholic League the opportunity to attack the film on the grounds of defamation? The film explores a truth which few Catholics would like to admit to, but in recent years have had little choice to do anything else. Like the little boy in the corner, trying to block out the constant noise, Catholic organisations must stop denying the crimes some of their religious leaders have associated them with. Mullan has presented the evidence with passion and zeal, and this film is a flawless prosecution after the scattershot nihilism of his debut, Orphans (1999). Every time the Vatican shoots the messenger, as opposed to apologising for acts committed in its name, it cheapens the faith of those it represents. Such insensitive collusion forces the intelligent Catholic viewers of Mullan’s masterpiece to doubt even more whether we want such an uncaring, self serving institution in any way involved in our own faith.

Inspired by the Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate and condemned by the Vatican, actor-director Peter Mullan’s second film, The Magdalene Sisters, proves that often it is the true stories that are the most powerful. Balancing a complete control of his material with a searing intensity and a sense of moral outrage, Mullan details life inside an Irish Catholic convent offering ‘fallen’ women a path to salvation – by doing the local laundry these women could literally wash away their sins. In reality, women were held in these convents against their will for indefinite periods, enduring conditions akin to slavery and subjected to a series of humiliations, both physical and psychological. The Magdalene convents – named after the mother of all repentant sinners, Mary Magdalene – now seem almost medieval in their cruelty but remained widely operational through the 1970s. The last one closed in 1996.

Set in Dublin County in 1964, Mullan’s excoriating screenplay details three main characters arriving at one convent on the same day. In a remarkable opening sequence Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a cousin at a wedding celebration. Lively music drowns out her tearful confession to a family member and, as the news is related to other family members, tension escalates without the help of any dialogue. In the next scene, this ‘sinner’ is dispatched to the convent. The second introduction is Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who has given birth to an illegitimate child. As a manipulative priest persuades her to give her son up for adoption, her parents, refusing to acknowledge their grandson, spurn their daughter and pack her off to Magdalene. And finally Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan whose good looks attract too much attention from the boys, is branded a temptress and also sent to the nuns. They are introduced to the ways of the convent by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), a beady-eyed force who humiliates them before dispatching them off to their purgatory in the laundry rooms.

Aware of the potency of his subject matter, Mullan is content to let the events speak for themselves. He has an eye for striking or poignant visual detail that seems convey so much more than dialogue. At one point, as the girls eat porridge for breakfast, the nuns are seen set to tuck into the mountains of sausages piled before them. In another unforgettable moment, Sister Bridget is seen reflected in the pupil of Bernadette’s blood-caked eye. And for Christmas, a polished red apple on each bed forms a striking splash of colour in the womens’ otherwise dreary world, reflected in the use of an undersaturated palate of ochre and browns from director of photography Nigel Willoughby. Meanwhile exterior scenes are bathed in sunlight, as if mocking the womens’ incarceration.

Brilliantly acted by both newcomers and established names alike (with Mullan taking a cameo role as a father brutally returning his escapee daughter to the nuns) The Magdalene Sisters is unflinching in exposing the horrors and humiliations that these women endured. And while it makes for depressing and often distressing viewing, there are small moments of humour, a testimony to the strength of the human spirit. Mullan is also brave enough to give Sister Bridget a quieter moment of contemplation and even a moment of charm when, describing her childhood dream of becoming an actress, we are given an insight into that which lies behind the monstrous exterior. Too easy a target to demonise, in humanising Sister Bridget Mullan gives her the complex characteristics of a true psychopath – and in doing so creates surely one of the most chilling cinematic monsters of recent times.