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Film review: The Miracle Club

06 October 2023

Stephen Brown reviews the latest Lourdes film

Maggie Smith in The Miracle Club

Maggie Smith in The Miracle Club

YOU could be forgiven for wondering why the world needs another Lourdes film after dozens of predecessors. Take heart: The Miracle Club (Cert. 12A), now in cinemas, speaks to present needs, though set in 1967.

Woe and joy are woven fine in its opening. Sweepingly glorious, if rather hackneyed, vistas of the Emerald Isle are juxtaposed with depressing shots of the Ballygar district of Dublin. We meet the friends Eileen (Kathy Bates), Lily (Maggie Smith), and Dolly (Agnes O’Casey), who rub along together despite underlying resentments.

Each needs some sort of miracle. Lily remains overwhelmed by shame and guilt after the death of her only son. The lump in Eileen’s breast is an unshared secret. The youngest woman, Dolly, has a mute child. Whether elective or not is questionable. At a parish talent competition, they enter and win tickets to make the pilgrimage to Lourdes. As if they didn’t carry enough burdens, Chrissie (Laura Linney) returns for her mother’s funeral. Clearly unwelcome after four decades, she says. “I was banished.”

Inevitably, Irish Catholic guilt figures in the overall scenario, but so does forgiveness and reconciliation. To cut a long story short, the four women set off for Lourdes. And, as often happens, the reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage aren’t the ones that keep them going. They are set on miraculously finding the way out of their troubles, but what they get is the strength to go on when there is no miracle as such. Or is there?

In effect, this is a road movie: a journey of discovery. It happens to be about Roman Catholics and their particular rituals and practices. Eileen, for instance, sees medals of the Immaculate Conception on sale, and she says that she’ll have ten of those. It is easy to translate these outer trappings of religion into appurtenances that support our own emotional and spiritual yearnings. Here are people who use the experience of age, yet not wisely enough to question the past that made them the way they are. Heavily armoured they may be, but it is through their chinks that the light gets in. Laura Linney is especially skilled in portraying this.

Thaddeus O’Sullivan who directs is steeped in an Irish Catholic background and of an age to remember the 1960s. For younger audiences, this is light years away from present circumstances and outlooks. What will resonate with them is an abiding sense that shrines and sacred spaces enable people to confront past hurts before healing can begin. There are moments when this might all seem a little too pat. Likewise, the prominence given to the women does not leave enough time to consider the men they left behind. Life hasn’t changed for them, unless there is to be some other kind of miracle in the offing.

It is a superb cast. Kathy Bates (despite an occasional wobbly Irish accent) provides both comedy and tragedy. Agnes O’Casey is a touching presence on screen. Ultimately, though, it is Maggie Smith’s pathos that makes this Lourdes movie so distinctive. The way in which she delivers “There is hope, isn’t there?” will find few to argue with it.

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