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The miracle of The Miracle Club is that it does, I promise, end

14 October 2023

9:00 AM

14 October 2023

9:00 AM

The Miracle Club

12A, Nationwide

The Miracle Club, which is about a group of Irish women who travel to Lourdes, has a magnificent cast – Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates, Laura Linney – and it inspired me to pray. ‘Dear God,’ I found myself praying mid-way through, ‘let this be over soon.’ The film’s stars make it just about watchable but it’s still a disappointingly trite and shopworn affair. It’s as if three thoroughbreds have been entered in the local donkey derby.

It is written by Jimmy Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer, and directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. I’ve just looked him up and can see he directed some episodes of Call the Midwife, which makes sense, as the film has a Sunday-evening TV vibe. It’s set in Ireland in the sixties where Lily (Smith) and Eileen (Bates, whose accent is fine, if spotty) live in a religious, working-class area of Dublin. They have known each other forever and, along with their young neighbour, Dolly (Agnes O’Casey), sign up for the local parish talent contest to win tickets for a pilgrimage to Lourdes. (I was more enticed by the second prize: a joint of bacon.)

They’re a singing act, The Miracles, and on the night of the contest perform ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons, and it is fun watching Maggie Smith do the ‘doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang’ part, even if Lady Grantham would be horrified. The evening is then disturbed by the appearance of Chrissie (Linney), who has returned after an absence of 40 years. She is greeted frostily. I intuited the following: secrets will out.

All four are after a Lourdes miracle, for reasons that are laid out heavy-handedly. Eileen has discovered a lump on her breast. Dolly’s young son can’t (or won’t) talk. Lily has a bad leg and a backstory with Chrissie that will inevitably require untangling (sigh). They all get a ticket in the end through convoluted means that are also confusing – according to my calculations, they are a ticket short – and all leave behind husbands of the most condescendingly stereotyped kind. They can’t cook a meal or change a baby’s nappy, while Eileen’s husband, played by Stephen Rea, can’t even shop for groceries without spilling them all over the street. I felt sorriest for Stephen Rea – because he’s Stephen Rea.

The film wants, I think, to be a comedy drama like Calendar Girls or something with proper oomph, like Philomena, but the jokes aren’t sharp enough, the characters aren’t explored deeply enough and neither are the themes of grief and forgiveness. There’s a trauma at the heart of it that, because the tone is off, doesn’t properly land emotionally.

All manner of odd decisions are made. The trip to Lourdes by coach must have taken an age but they arrive in two minutes flat without appearing to have had one conversation on the way. Bates’s character and Linney’s are meant to be the same age despite a near 20-year gap between the actresses. And if Dolly’s son is electively mute, why? It’s as shallow as the holy water baths they take in Lourdes which are, they are told, ‘purified’ by God. No miracles are produced – but several verrucas might have been.

The three stars elevate the material, and it’s always a pleasure to watch Smith, who can convey contempt with the slightest twitch. While Bates doesn’t turn in the most subtle of performances she is, it turns out, a terrific singer. Linney is mostly required to emote from afar. As for the ending, it’s so insistently ‘heart-warming’ I found it had the opposite effect and was thus left stone cold. The bacon might have been the better bet.

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