Directed by Peter Mullan. Starring Geraldine McEwan, Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy and Eileen Walsh.

With the top prize from this year's Venice Film Festival, the critics' prize from Toronto, and a denunciation from the Vatican under its belt, Peter Mullan's film about life in an Irish Magdalene Laundry in 1964 hits our cinema screens with expectations running high.

The film focuses on three teenage girls sent to work and live in an unnamed Magdalene Laundry run by Catholic nuns. Their crimes? Margaret spoke out after she was raped by her cousin, Rose had a baby out of wedlock she was not allowed to keep and orphan Bernadette was simply deemed too pretty for the outside world. In an early scene, Sister Bridget (a cruel but unnervingly smiley McEwan) tells the three new girls why they are there: "All men are sinners and therefore all men are open to temptation. In any God fearing country if you want to save men from themselves you remove that temptation." A fourth girl, Crispina, who is already resident in the convent would seem to put truth to the argument: she is what the nuns refer to as "slow" (and therefore vulnerable to the advances of young men) and also had a baby out of wedlock.

All four girls give strong performances; two of them making their film debuts. Duff is excellent as 'good girl' Margaret and Noone brings a stubborn churlishness to the role of pretty-but-nasty Bernadette, but it is the scenes between Duffy and Walsh (as grieving single mums Rose and Crispina) that shine. Walsh puts a remarkable energy into the role of Crispina, managing to elicit sympathy - but never pity - for the film's most difficult character.

It is a harrowing tale and Mullan holds no punches, whether aiming at the Catholic Church or the blinkered attitude of Irish society. The girls are subjected to incredible cruelty, abuse and humiliation, and the camera makes no apology as it pans over the nun's delicious fried breakfast while the girls sup grey porridge. It lingers on the wads of cash counted into a biscuit tin by Sister Bridget as she tells the new girls - who will be unpaid labourers - how they must atone for their sins through work and prayer.

While these scenes are intended to hammer home the hypocrisy of the nun's attitudes towards the women in their 'care', it is here that the film also fails. There is nothing subtle about Mullan's efforts to reveal these double standards and at times it feels like he is simply pointing an angry finger and shouting 'look, look at this'. The melodrama is forgivable, but even worse is the film's tendency to overflow into farce.

In what Mullan refers to as the mockery scene, two nuns make a group of girls strip naked and then proceed to hold a competition for who has the biggest/smallest breasts, etc. What should make for chilling and uncomfortable viewing is tempered by the OTT Graham Norton-like delight that one of the Sisters takes in the 'game'. The scene will make you cringe, but not in the way it's meant to.

That said, 'The Magdalene Sisters' is worth seeing - if only for Eileen Walsh's performance. It may seem like a time long past, but it's also worth remembering that the last Laundry closed in Dublin in 1996. In Venice this year, cinema-goers filed past priests with video cameras who documented their attendance and told them they were committing a sin simply by watching the film. With media focus on the Irish government's plans for dealing with allegations of further abuse by members of the Catholic clergy to the fore this month, 'The Magdalene Sisters' is a timely, if flawed, offering.

It should be a dramatic and compelling story - and at times it is - but 'The Magdalene Sisters' never manages to live up to the promise of its powerful opening sequences. Played over the film's credits and opening music, the scenes that introduce us to Margaret and her 'sin' are an example of strong - mostly wordless - cinematic storytelling. Would that Mullan had exercised the same restraint throughout.

Cristín Leach