The Miracle Club review: Maggie Smith can’t salvage sentimental, superficial Irish drama

Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s faith-based drama is exactly the sort of film you suspect was made to cater to American, rather than Irish, tastes

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 12 October 2023 16:00 BST
The Miracle Club

The micro-industry of cosy, wholesome films set in Ireland continues apace. In Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s The Miracle Club, a group of working-class women in mid-century Dublin travel to the Catholic pilgrimage site at Lourdes, each in search of a God-granted cure to their ails. Lily (Maggie Smith) still grieves the loss of her son, Declan, who drowned, aged 19, back in 1927. Eileen (Kathy Bates) fears what the lump in her breast inevitably signals. Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) is convinced she’s the reason her son is nonverbal.

It’s a film that’s partially about faith, the kind found in the French grotto where St Bernadette Soubirous was supposedly blessed by an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1858. It’s also about the nature of healing: Lily, Eileen, and Dolly arrive in Lourdes expecting one kind of miracle, and leave with the realisation that God’s gifts don’t necessarily come in the form of material change, but can sometimes consist of nothing more than the strength to carry on. It isn’t brave enough to directly critique organised religion, and the way its patriarchal systems have added to these women’s burdens, but it does offer a moving celebration of intimate, individual faith.

And yet, while there’s nothing outrightly stereotypical here, The Miracle Club suffers from being both sentimental and superficial. It’s exactly the sort of film you suspect was made to cater to American, rather than Irish tastes (it premiered at New York’s Tribeca Festival) – something lightly fantastical for those in the Irish diaspora who feel disconnected from their ancestral roots but can’t quite shake the tourist mentality. It’s nowhere close to the cardigan-donning, green hills-rollicking nonsense of notorious romcoms Leap Year and Wild Mountain Thyme, but it also doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a disservice to the Irish women at its heart.

There is, in fact, an Irish-American in this story: Chrissie (Laura Linney), who moved away four decades ago, only returning now to bury her mother. Her old friends, neighbours, and extended family feel abandoned, and so ostracise her in turn. It’s not hard to imagine that Chrissie’s shame is explicitly there for Irish-Americans to project their own, unsettled feelings onto – the question of what their ancestors would think of them now.

And so, the Ireland Chrissie finds is, at times, comically retrograde, even for 1967. When the women are away, we’re forced to watch the men demonstrate total incompetence when it comes to simple, domestic tasks. Apparently, these men don’t even know how to hold multiple items of shopping in their arms at once. Chrissie, by the end, takes up the position of educator, supposedly bringing American wisdom and experience to traditional, Irish naïveté.

John Hand’s production design and Judith Williams’s costumes have a keen sense of mid-century, working-class domestic spaces, yet every rushing aerial shot of Ireland or France seems borrowed from a cheap, globetrotting thriller. Smith can steep a few cutting words with a universe of feeling but is given sparse material to work with. Most frustrating of all, the film ends on an utterance of the word “home” that feels both like a cheap shortcut and a betrayal of earlier, more nuanced character work. The Miracle Club certainly seeks to capture a feeling of “home” – but it’s not entirely clear for whom.

Dir: Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Starring: Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith, Stephen Rea, Agnes O’Casey. Cert 12A, 90 minutes

‘The Miracle Club’ is in cinemas from 13 October

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