At 90 minutes, The Miracle Club has a lot on its mind. First, it wants to paint the close-knitted friendship between Lily Fox (Maggie Smith), Eileen Dunne (Kathy Bates), and Dolly Hennessy (Agnes O’Casey) that gets upended once Chrissie Ahearn (Laura Linney) returns to town after her mother, Maureen (Brenda Fricker), passes. There seems to be some rivalry between Chrissie and Eileen, who resent her for leaving while Chrissie begs forgiveness.
But it also wants to be a religious drama, as the film sees the protagonists on a pilgrimage to Lourdes to bathe in its holy waters. Eileen notices a lump on her breast and hopes she will be exonerated from the pain by literally and figuratively touching the Virgin Mary. Dolly wants her son to start talking, and Lily wants to speak to Maureen again. It feels like many movies, but director Thaddeus O’Sullivan keeps the pace moving swiftly, even if the ideas don’t merge in an enlightening way (no pun intended, of course).
There’s also the subplot involving Eileen’s husband (Stephen Rea), who, for the first time, has to take care of his family, but the film never paints this element as necessary. That’s all second fiddle. What’s most important is the relationships between the four female protagonists, but even that is vastly uneven. There are a few scenes where the emotional impact is intensely felt, most notably when Dolly confesses her sins to the other girls, and Chrissie gives a heartbreaking revelation. O’Sullivan doesn’t frame this scene in a showy or overtly melodramatic way: he lets the characters speak [their truths] for themselves, allowing for some genuinely compassionate performances from our leads.
Smith’s late-stage career has been mostly remembered for portraying the colorful Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. And deservedly so, it’s one of the best roles of her career, both devilishly despicable (delivering some of the show’s best lines with deadpan precision) and unabashedly human, especially in Downton Abbey: A New Era. In The Miracle Club, she continues this profoundly human and emotional vein, though she has never lost her touch with always having the last word.
She shares terrific chemistry with Bates, whose Eileen is blunter and more realistic than the rest of the lot. That makes for a fun dynamic between the two, but deep down her direct exterior lies a warmer side of her that’s waiting to come out. Linney is also excellent as Chrissie, especially during the confession mentioned above scene, but her arc is more truncated than any of the other characters. It’s a shame because it feels like there’s a more extended script somewhere that peered into Eileen’s resentments with Chrissie, but their quasi-rivalry gets resolved far too quickly for the movie to qualify it as essential.
Near its midsection, when both storylines (the friendship and Biblical sections) come together, The Miracle Club loses focus and has no idea what it truly wants to say. The initial overarching presentation of the film, through its opening credits, sets it up as a deeply reflective and personal movie. However, it barely scratches the surface of the characters’ individual – and spiritual – connections. What did they ultimately learn about life through their pilgrimage? Miracles are indeed real? Or do they only happen to the purest of hearts?
O’Sullivan keeps this core question close to him and gives some answers to it near the end but commits the mistake of putting two different versions of what a miracle can be close to each other instead of leaving the truest (or purest) definition of the word to the audience. As a result, The Miracle Club can’t overcome its undercooked presentation and themes despite solid work from Smith, Linney, and Bates and an inviting visual presentation from cinematographer John Conroy. There’s a more profound movie somewhere, but we’ll need a miracle to unearth it.
Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Stars: Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith, Agnes O’Casey, and Stephen Rea
Runtime: 90 minutes
Country: Ireland/United Kingdom