Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: At the movies: ‘Open Range,’ ‘The Magdalene Sisters’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 11, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

I haven’t enjoyed a Western in years. But Kevin Costner’s new panoramic vision of the Old West, Open Range, reminds one of the power of a traditional Western.

The beautiful Canadian scenery of Alberta suffuses this film. Costner proves again after several failures that he can direct a powerful, elegiac story. In my book it is Costner’s best job of directing and acting since Dances With Wolves. It is well worth seeing.

The movie begins as four nomadic cowboys, the cattle settled, make camp in a lush valley while a storm approaches. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) is the leader of the nomadic group. His main sidekick for 10 years or so is Charley Waite (Costner). They have two younger hands named Mosse and Button.

The storm is intense. Their wagon is submerged in mud. Mosse is sent into the local town to get more supplies before they move on within the wide open spaces.

Moss is beaten up by a gang controlling the town and ends up in jail. The leader of the town is a rancher by the name of Baxter (Michael Gambon) who hates the cowboys known as “free-grazers.” He will do anything he can to destroy them. Boss and Charley go to the town and finally are able to get the wounded Mosse out of jail. They take him to the local doctor. There they meet the doctor’s assistant, played by Annette Bening. Both of the cowboys assume that the Bening character is the doctor’s wife. Only later when they return with a wounded Button does it become clear that she is the doctor’s sister. She plays a strong woman in a rough West. Charley falls for her with a slow struggling attempt to communicate his feelings.

The struggle between Boss and Charley and the Baxter gang leads to a very violent but powerfully filmed gun battle.

Open Range is a traditional Western with lots of metaphors for the dark control of a village by one evil man. We have the constant rain, the house being constructed that slips from its footings, and the broken tea set. We have overtures of many a classic movie such as High Noon and the John Ford classics. But we also have some new twists. There is more of a psychological tone at times. The male bonding and attempts at communication are reminiscent of the men's movement of our time.

Sometimes the language sounds a little too noble and uplifting. But at the same time there is lots of humor. I laughed more that at any summer movie this year. Here is a movie that has a tender love story within its classic Western showdown. Open Range should appeal to both men and women.

Robert Duvall is wonderful as the flinty leader of a small band of cowboys who seek to be as free as the wind. Kevin Costner is perfect for his part of a man struggling with his past violence and his temptation to slip into vengeance. Annette Bening is excellent in her role of tenderness in the midst of courage. Michael Jeter, who died before the movie was released, is absolutely wonderful as the livery stable owner who brings comedy and wisdom to the story. The movie is properly dedicated to this great supporting actor of stage, television and movies. The supporting actors and actresses help make Open Range the fine movie it is.

Costner has made the Western come alive and prove again what an iconic genre of the American experience is found within it.

Open Range is rated R. It has some rough language appropriate to a Western and lots of violence that looks more intense than typical movie violence.

The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rates Open Range A-III – for adults.


Around 10 years ago my sister Patty and I went to a traveling exhibit of the “Life and Times of Anne Frank.” At the display in Minneapolis, Patty pointed to a photograph of around six German bishops and senior priests giving the “Heil Hitler” salute at a Catholic Youth Festival six months after Hitler came to power in 1933. Patty said, “How can that be?”

Through the years the photo has haunted me. A year or so ago I heard an expert speak at Whitworth College in Spokane who was from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I asked her about the picture. She said it shows a moment in history that did happen. But she informed me that one of the senior priests in the photograph was killed by the Nazis a year later.

My personal policy is not to review films in the Inland Register that have received an 0 rating (morally offensive) by the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, in light of the sexual abuse crisis in our Church, I believe it is appropriate to review the new Scottish-Irish production The Magdalene Sisters, which is rated O.

Director Peter Multan was inspired by a British television documentary called Sex in a Cold Climate. His The Magdalene Sisters is a fictional account based on the stories of victims of the Magdalene Asylums where up to 30,000 Irish women are believed to have been placed to work in prison-like laundries.

The story takes place in 1964. The last Magdalene Asylum closed in 1996.

The film begins at an Irish wedding where Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is brutally raped. She tells a close friend, who tels her family and the parish priest. The result is she, the victim, is taken away to a nearby Magdalene Asylum.

At roughly the same time, Rose (Dorothy Duffy) is placed in the same facility for having a child out of wedlock.

A third teenager, Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan, arrives with the other two because she is too sexually attractive to the male orphans.

Thus begins a gruesome story that is among the most difficult to watch films I have ever seen. The Magdalene Sisters is a story of unrelenting evil deeds done against innocent young women. Schindler’s List and The Pianist were not as difficult to watch.

The girls, and they are girls, are forced into a life of daily hard work in a laundry where they are punished severely even if they talk to each other. Any girl who tries to escape is beaten and her hair is shorn.

The head of this Magdalene Asylum is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) who exhibits power unchecked. Under her administration, two of the nuns make fun of two of the naked girls.

Much of the story centers on Crispina (Eileen Walsh) who in those times was called simple-minded. She is sexually abused by a priest associated with the asylum.

There is a suicide attempt. Eventually Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette, seek to rise up and escape.

From an artistic point of view I find the unrelenting horror of The Magdalene Sisters is in the melodramatic form of a woman’s prison-concentration camp genre. There seems to be no one other than the victims who has an ounce of goodness. Schindler’s List of course had the flawed Schindler who in the midst of the horror saved hundreds of Jews. The Pianist has the Nazi officer who could have killed the Adrian Brody character at any time, and chose not to, as he listens to the prisoner play the piano.

Margaret’s brother finally appears in The Magdalene Sisters with papers from her priest and her parents that lead to her immediate release. But she rightly cries out, “Why did you wait four years?”

Sister Bridget seems to at least have a moment of questioning what she is doing, but her brutal fight to prevent the key to the house from falling into the hands of two escaping girls is way over-the-top. She gives up the key when they give her the lost key to the safe. All this horror for greed? I think not.

All the principals in The Magdalene Sisters do a fine job of acting.

What we have in this film is an artistic interpretation of a reality that took place for decades in Ireland with the complicity of Church, State, and families fearing a bad reputation.

In recent weeks the Mercy Sisters, who ran some of the Magdalene Asylums, have made public apologies for their sins.

Lord Acton’s famous words seem to ring true in this dark side of our Church’s history: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.”

The Magdalene Sisters is rated O – morally offensive – by the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R – restricted.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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