The Miracle Club is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Let us acknowledge, first of all, that roles can be hard to come by for actresses over the age of 40, and that we should certainly celebrate the existence of a motion picture with substantial parts for an actress nearing 60 (Laura Linney), one in her mid-70s (Kathy Bates), and another pushing 90 (Maggie Smith).
But let us also recognize, in our very next breath, that these three actresses—who share between them three Oscars (12 nominations), 10 Emmys (32 nominations), one Tony (9 nominations), and a veritable warehouse of other accolades—deserve infinitely better material than Thaddeus O'Sullivan's The Miracle Club (2023), an underwritten, indecisive, painfully false piece of cinematic paddywhackery.
To be sure, these ladies elevate the film slightly with their presence. I'm just not at all sure what it does for them—or anyone else, for that matter.
It is 1967, in a working-class neighborhood of Dublin. Friends and neighbors Lily (Smith) and Eileen (Bates) have joined together with their young friend Dolly (Agnes O'Casey) to perform in a church talent show. First-prize is a trip to Lourdes, the French village turned Catholic mecca where bathing in the waters is supposed to provide miracles. Dolly wants to take her young son Daniel (Eric Smith), who is about seven but has never spoken. Eileen—though she hasn't told anyone—has found a lump in her breast. And Lily is still mourning the drowning death of her son Declan, forty years earlier.
It is no spoiler, certainly, to reveal that the women do get their tickets, and soon Lily, Eileen, and Dolly all set off together on the church bus for France. They leave their comically useless men—played by Niall Buggy, Stephen Rea, and Mark McKenna, respectively—to tend the domestic home-front.
(Incidentally, all the angry male movie fans accusing films like Joy Ride and Barbie of "targeting" men this season should bolster their creaky arguments with The Miracle Club: the men in this movie are barely walking upright.)
The fly in the ointment, however, is Chrissie (Linney), once Eileen's best friend, and once the girlfriend of Lily's son Declan. Following the death of her mother, Chrissie has returned from America for the first time since she left 40 years earlier, and—despite Eileen and Lily greeting her with less warmth as they'd give a child molester just released from prison—she decides to come along on the pilgrimage.
Slowly, over the course of the trip, all the dirty laundry and bad feelings that exist between these three women get aired. (Dolly, too young to know the history, is the only person who gets along with everyone.) And it is here that the waffling intentions of the screenplay drive The Miracle Club into a tonal train-wreck, as the lightly comedic ladies-on-holiday-abroad shenanigans occasionally, and suddenly, give way to vicious arguments over dark, ugly, sordid secrets. The film can never quite decide whether it wants to be a jolly romp like Calendar Girls or a grittier drama about real issues like The Magdalene Sisters, and so ends up splicing both genres together, never committing fully enough to make either work.
There are three writers listed on The Miracle Club, and I suspect that, at some point in the process, a more substantial movie was sacrificed on the altar of "feel-good commercial appeal." If that's the case—and, to be clear, I do not know that it is—the excising of the dramatic material should have been more thorough. What remains of Linney's character's story is far too dark for the movie that surrounds it, and what remains of the conversations about that story do not begin to actually process the hurt and anger and loss involved. Unforgivable sins are confessed, and then immediately forgiven and forgotten. Not even the efforts of these very good actresses can sell the completely unearned and unmotivated air of absolution and reconciliation that the movie wants to bring us to in the third act. (If Chrissie can actually forgive these women for what was done to her—based on a just few brief and absurdly shallow conversations—Lourdes needs to erect statues to yet another saint.)
There are moments that work, as you would expect from this kind of talent. We even overlook the fact that the casting makes little sense. (None of the four leads are Irish, but Smith and O'Casey fare pretty well with the Dublin accent. Bates does not, unfortunately, nor is she a particularly convincing high-school pal of Linney, who is 15 years her junior.) Smith reminds us what a tremendous talent she is, getting a late opportunity to do real acting after more than a decade of doing amusing Maggie-Smith-Shtick in Downton Abbey. Linney is always reliable and compelling, even given such a baffling contradiction of a character to play. (The only one of the three headliners without an Oscar, she may deserve one here for her attempts to make Chrissie's actions seem internally and organically motivated.) And newcomer O'Casey more than holds her own in this intimidating company; her performance is a bright spot, and one hopes it leads to better movies.
Director O'Sullivan, competent enough here in his narrative feature debut, earned his stripes in television. Among his many credits, I note, are two episodes of Call the Midwife, an underrated series that is adept at the exact mixture of feel-good sweetness and working-class horror—"an iron hand in a velvet glove," as critic Caitlin Moran said—that The Miracle Club fails so awkwardly to achieve. If only the producers had hired some of Midwife's writers as well—to show them how to tackle hard topics with an touch of gentle grace—The Miracle Club might have proven worthy of its cast.