As an actress, Maggie Smith can do no wrong. She’s a lot more fallible at choosing projects, as evidenced by this treacly story about Irishwomen of different generations who travel to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, praying for a miracle.
Smith is at the center of a powerhouse trio of actresses here, along with Laura Linney and Kathy Bates. And while recent films like Book Club and 80 for Brady have labored the point that older women still like sex, The Miracle Club is set in a tradition-bound 1967 Dublin barely touched by the sexual revolution of the era. That offers no improvement on the often cartoonish roles available for overqualified actresses of a certain age. Directed with pedestrian competence by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, The Miracle Club is about secrets that are all too obvious, and forgiveness you can see coming from the start.
The Miracle Club
The Bottom Line An irredeemable film about redemption.
Each of the main characters has a reason to need a miracle. Smith plays Lily, whose son, Daniel, drowned decades before at the age of 19. She considers his death a punishment from God. Smith glides through the role easily, and when she is on screen the film is benign and watchable.
Eileen (Bates), the mother of a large family, has just found a lump in her breast, but tells no one except the parish priest, Father Byrne (Mark O’Halloran). Bates has the most difficult role as this irascible, sometimes resentful figure. She isn’t afraid to make Eileen unlikable, but the shallow screenplay — by Jimmy Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer, from Smallhorne’s story — doesn’t give her much help filling out the character. “Have you seen a doctor?” the priest asks, and Eileen says, “No, I want to go to Lourdes.” Her response reveals unshakable faith. Whether we are also meant to see her as blinkered (as if faith and science are mutually exclusive) is less clear at that point.
A generation younger, Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) is the mother of a young son who doesn’t speak. O’Casey gives a confident performance, even in the midst of the stellar cast around her.
As we meet these characters in the opening stretch, O’Sullivan (the HBO Churchill drama Into the Storm) and the production designer, John Hand, effectively create the texture of their lives, in modest working-class houses with faded patterned wallpaper. That lived-in design is among the film’s best elements. John Conroy’s cinematography is as unremarkable as the formulaic screenplay, which has Lily, Eileen and Dolly singing together in a parish talent contest, with the grand prize being two tickets to Lourdes.
Linney’s character, Chrissie, turns up at that event, and adds a welcome but brief spikiness. Chrissie’s mother, the beloved friend of the other women, has just died and Chrissie returns to Dublin looking polished and cosmopolitan after 40 years in the U.S., without having set foot back in Ireland. There is some bad blood between Lily and Eileen on one side and Chrissie on the other. “I was banished!” Chrissie reminds them, and it doesn’t take more than one shot of her mooning over a photograph of Daniel to guess why. Like Smith, Linney is so strong and natural an actor that she makes her scenes watchable even when they, inevitably in this film, suddenly turn warm and fuzzy.
Chrissie’s mother has left her a ticket to Lourdes, which she hands to Father Byrne, for someone else to use. “Just don’t give it to the nuns,” she says. But without much prompting or apparent motivation, she ends up on a bus heading to the shrine with the other women. The entire film was shot in Ireland, which may explain why the Lourdes scenes look so cramped and artificial.
Smith and Linney have the film’s best scene together, when Lily visits the baths filled with holy water at the shrine. Chrissie dismisses what she calls “all the hocus-pocus” around her and Lily gently says, “There’s always hope, isn’t there, even when you don’t completely believe.” It’s a lovely, delicate scene, that merely suggests what a better script overall might have allowed.
Instead, there are worn-out attempts at humor involving incompetent husbands. Stephen Rea is Eileen’s hangdog spouse, who can’t shop or cook. When Dolly’s husband (Mark McKenna) uses a towel to diaper their baby, you can start eye-rolling before that diaper falls off in the next scene.
At Lourdes, all hard feelings vanish. And Father Byrne delivers the film’s message in a single platitude: “You don’t come to Lourdes for a miracle, Eileen, you come for the strength to go on when there is no miracle.” Oh, now he tells her. Of course, The Miracle Club suggests that is a lesson the women had to learn for themselves, an idea that is just another sign of the film’s triteness. These actresses deserved so much better.