No Country for Women 5* review: 'Public service broadcasting at its finest, as well as riveting, harrowing TV'
RTE has described No Country for Women as “a landmark documentary”. That claim has been made for many productions from the national broadcaster down the years, not least its bloated, two- and three-part profiles of taoisigh and political parties, and too often the reality falls short of the hype.
Not this time. By any standard, Anne Roper’s film, sprawling across two hours and two nights, is a monumental undertaking. It’s daunting to ponder the amount of research and preparation that must have been required before a single shot was in the can.
Roper was attempting to do nothing less than tell the entire story of Irish women — a story involving oppression, incarceration, intolerance, injustice, sexual and physical abuse, psychological torture, dehumanisation, denial of human and legal rights, and astonishing levels of spite and cruelty — in the 100 years since the first women gained the vote.
It’s a big ask, but the documentary delivered. Given the scope and scale, it’s forgiveable if the film, particularly in the first part, sometimes felt cluttered and overstuffed. There’s no doubt it would have benefited from being an extra hour long.
But look, this is a minor quibble. This is an epic achievement of which Roper and RTE should be proud. It’s public service broadcasting at its finest, as well as a riveting, harrowing piece of television.
The starting point of the long, sordid story that is the treatment of women in this country, was how the lofty, supposedly egalitarian ideals of the 1916 Rising soured under the Free State into what one historian here called “a fake republic” — “a democratic theocracy”, deeply mired in the misogyny, hypocrisy and moral cowardice of its dual architects, Eamon de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.
Their shadows loom over everything that has unfolded since: the clerical abuse; the Magdalene laundries; the stolen children and illegal adoptions; the innocent women incarcerated, sometimes for a lifetime, in asylums or mother and baby homes.
In a wise creative decision, Roper found a way into this broad, sweeping story by essentially dividing the documentary into separate strands, running parallel to one another and helmed by a different woman.
Lavinia Kerwick, who in 1991 (aged 18) became the first rape victim to waive her anonymity in a case that would lead to legislative change, probed the issue of sexual crimes and the near-impossibility of a rape victim securing justice in a society where women, under the new Free State legislation, were immediately barred from jury service in such trials.
Sexual crime was something to be swept under the carpet. It didn’t suit Dev and the rest of the boys’ club to have that sort of thing sullying the image of the new Ireland of rigid moral standards and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.
If that meant criminalising and incarcerating countless women for having babies outside of marriage, so be it. The children may have been branded “illegitimate”, but it’s clear who the real bastards were.
Elsewhere in the film, adoptee Samantha Long followed up the story of her biological grandmother, who had eight children over the course of 20 years and spent much of her life between their births in Grangegorman mental hospital.
In one of the many random cruelties, Samantha’s biological mother was also later incarcerated, in Gloucester Road Magdalene laundry, just a stone’s throw away.
The indomitable Catherine Corless, who has lifted the lid on the Tuam mother and baby home atrocities, unearthed the previously unheard tape recordings of Julia Devaney, who was confined there most of her life and offered a graphic account of the brutalities meted out by the nuns.
There was more, so much more, in a documentary that, ideally, would be shown in every school in the country.
It’s too important to forget.
No Country For Women is available to watch on RTE Player.