It's no secret that the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland wielded an incredible amount of power in the 1960s, or that it took a dim view of sex. One result was the Magdalene Asylums, convents for unwed mothers, rape victims, and those deemed too sexually active. Essentially prisons in which the inmates were forced into hard labor for no pay, the convents were a shameful wrong that persisted until 1996. The Magdalene Sisters is a fictional account of the experiences of some of those inmates.

Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is disowned by her parents after giving birth out of wedlock. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a cousin during a wedding. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan, did nothing more than flirt with schoolboys in a playground. The three are bewildered to find themselves trapped in the convent, laboring all day in a laundry, eating poor food, and sleeping in a stark, unheated loft.

Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), the asylum head, has strict rules. No one is allowed to talk during work. Questions are met with beatings. Those who try to escape have their hair shorn off. Desperate to get away, Bernadette strikes up a friendship with Brendan (Chris Simpson), a delivery man. Unrepentant when caught, Bernadette struggles so much when her hair is cut that the scissors leave her head bloody.

The inmates despair as the years pass. Cut off from her illegitimate son and sexually abused by a visiting priest, Crispina (Eileen Walsh) first tries to kill herself, then slowly goes insane. When Bernadette witnesses the death of Katy (Britta Smith), an elderly inmate, she persuades Rose to attempt another escape. But even if they succeed, they will be scarred forever by their experiences.

The real-life story behind The Magdalene Sisters is harrowing enough without writer-director Peter Mullan's melodramatic embellishments. Despite its political trappings, the film is structured like a prison movie, complete with an evil warden, sadistic guards and wronged convicts. The only real point to the script is that nuns are venal, priests lechers, and the inmates all innocent victims. Ultimately, Mullan chooses to blame everything on the Church, an easy way out of a far more complicated situation. In reality, the film's injustices--its beatings, rapes, suicide attempts and random cruelties--could be found in any country, at any time.

Rather than wallow in 40-year-old misery, Mullan might have taken some real risks by dealing with contemporary problems. Either that, or reach conclusions a bit less obvious than equating every sin in Ireland's past to the Roman Catholic Church. But that would require more insight and honesty than is on display in The Magdalene Sisters.

--Daniel Eagan