Gritty Scot

5 minute read

He got the idea for his latest film, The Magdalene Sisters, from a documentary he happened upon while channel surfing. If ever creative inspiration isn’t so close at hand, writer-director Peter Mullan can look to his own bleak Glaswegian upbringing. The visuals would certainly be striking. Mullan’s family led an outwardly prosperous life in a large pillared house that his mother instructed him and his seven siblings to tell people was owned, not rented. The lie fostered an illusion of affluence, but behind the façade, says Mullan, “we didn’t even have any furniture. We were dirt poor.” The family’s emotional landscape was even more barren. Mullan’s father, an alcoholic World War II veteran, was an abusive and distant figure who seemed actively to court his family’s contempt. When Mullan was 14 — by this time, he says, his father “had been serially raping my mother for a number of years” — the boy decided to take action. He prepared a cup of tea, added a generous dose of rat poison and took it into the sitting room. “I’d never made him a cup of tea in his life, and he knew it,” says Mullan. “I laid it in front of him and he just grinned. He knew full well what I was thinking of doing. He found it very amusing that he’d pushed me that far.” The drink remained untouched, and Mullan père continued to terrorize his family until his death from lung cancer a few years later.

The Magdalene Sisters, which debuted earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival — it won the top prize there, as well as the critics’ award at the Toronto Film Festival a week later — is Mullan’s second feature-length work (after 1997’s Orphans). The fact-based tale of four girls sent to one of Ireland’s Magdalene asylums for wayward girls — often, it seems, their sin was simply being pretty and flirtatious — has little in common with Mullan’s own background. But he has come to understand the connection between his story and the ones he tells in the film. “My father was our oppressor,” he says. “I got to understand oppression, especially the kind that can open a door and say, ‘Well, you can leave any time you like.’ “

Mullan’s harsh depiction of life at the infamous Magdalenes, the last of which closed in 1996, has earned him not only plaudits but also the ire of the Catholic Church. Mullan, 42, who describes himself as a “once-idealistic Catholic,” is unrepentant. Though its central characters are composites, he insists the film is an accurate depiction of life in institutions where young women were consigned to the care of often abusive nuns. “What really astonishes me about the church’s very vocal outrage is that I think being in one of those places was a lot worse than you see in the film,” he says. “I can’t believe how stupid the church has been, to give instant condemnation before even seeing the film. They made us front page on every paper in Italy.”

It is not Mullan’s first time in the spotlight. His role in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe won him the 1998 best actor award at Cannes and made him a sought-after commodity. He now has the luxury of choosing his projects and turned down a part in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Gangs of New York to make The Magdalene Sisters. Hollywood has beckoned but Mullan still sees himself as a working-class lad from Glasgow. “It’s like the ‘Are you still a Catholic?’ question,” he says. “I was brought up a Catholic until I was 18. I was economically working class until I was 37. I can’t escape in that I’m working class, but I’m very lucky in that my work is in bohemia.”

Q&A: I can’t believe how stupid the church has been, to give instant condemnation
TIME: You were essentially a juvenile delinquent. Yet you ended up going to university.
Mullan: I went pretty dark and was in a gang, but I only did that for a year. I realized that I just didn’t belong. I was pretty useless at any kind of industrial work. The only things I was good at were school, football and dancing. So I started studying and got into university.

TIME: Do you prefer acting or directing?
Mullan: I love acting. It’s the one job I know of where you can go in, go through complete catharsis — emotionally, physically sometimes and mentally — and at the end of the day say, ‘See you in the pub, guys.’ It’s not so much that I want to direct but that I have to. When I write something it terrifies me that if I give it to someone else and it doesn’t turn out as it could have done, I’d feel as if I’d orphaned my baby.

TIME: Why didn’t you film The Magdalene Sisters in Ireland, where it’s set?
Mullan: It came down to money. But I was a bit concerned when we couldn’t get an advert in one of the Irish newspapers. Alarm bells went off, rightly or wrongly. I worried that we’d be met with similar small acts of sabotage.

TIME: You still consider yourself a Catholic?
Mullan: My mother handed over my soul when I was two weeks old, and they educated me until I was 18. I don’t want them getting off the hook with this idea that he’s just a lapsed, he’s not really one of us anymore. The church helped shape me.

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