The Miracle Club

PG, 90 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It is a bit of a surprise to see a film like this arrive on the big screen. Not just because it’s a period drama about women who go on a pilgrimage but because the tale and its telling is rather dated, despite some gentle comedy. It’s rather like entering a time warp, though I can vouch for the good company once you enter with leads Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith and Laura Linney, top character actors who need no introduction.

Yes, it’s about another club for older women, but it isn’t books that inspire them. Believe it or not, it is a local talent contest organized by the local priest, a fund raiser for a trip to Lourdes in southern France.

Miracles are said to take place there, so perhaps a little boy will begin to speak, changing the lives of his anxious parents. Perhaps the lump that matriarch Eileen (Bates) has found in her breast will go away. She fears the worst and hasn’t told a soul, not even her husband (Stephen Rea). Visiting Lourdes in France has been a lifelong ambition for Lily (Smith) who still feels the loss of her only son who was drowned off the coast at the age of 19.

The funeral has coincided with the talent quest, so the club is where the mourners are and it’s all happening

The fourth member of the club arrives the moment the talent quest kicks off. Chrissie (Linney) has vowed that she would never set foot in Ballygar again, and after spending the last 40 years away, has returned from Boston for the funeral of her mother. The ceremony has coincided with the talent quest, so she makes her way to the club where it’s all happening.

Eileen, Lily and their much younger friend member in the singing trio, Dolly (young Agnes O’Casey holds her own well), have found time to practice so they could enter with their rendition of He’s So Fine. The first prize is a pilgrimage, all expenses paid, to a destination where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in a grotto during the 19th century. The second prize is a baked ham.

After watching the trio do their number on stage, Chrissie approaches their table to greet them. It has been a long 40 years, and she is still frozen out. Dolly likes her immediately, but the rapprochement between the three older women will take time, so it’s a good thing that Chrissie opts to join them, for her mother’s sake, on the coach to Lourdes. What is it they say? Miracles can happen. On the trip the bad vibe between the women eventually disappears. It is a predictable minor miracle.

A gentle, inoffensive if shopworn tale set when the Church had much more sway than it does now

Unlike some recent films about clubs, for fans (80 for Brady) and for readers (the Book Club movies I and II) that have also featured older women like the remarkable Jane Fonda, these working-class women of Ballygar, Dublin have little time for reading. What with the kids, the shopping, the housework, and the husbands. But they have found time to develop their singing act, and there is apparently time for their faith.

This gentle, inoffensive tale of friends who bond again together is set in 1967 in an Ireland where the Catholic Church held a lot more sway than it does now. The sectarian strife of ‘the Troubles’ that drove a wedge in Irish society does not yet appear to have begun yet.

When Fonda and friends took off on a racy trip to Tuscany in the second Book Club movie, it at least had some oomph while we were wondering who had had cosmetic work done and who hadn’t. In The Miracle Club, Kathy Bates looks the part of a battle-worn mother and grandmother, while every one of the 89 years of Dame Maggie Smith’s life is stamped in each crease and fold of her face. Laura Linney, whether she has had work done or not, is always interesting to watch.

The screenplay by Timothy Prager, Jimmy Smallhorne and Joshua D Maurer, is directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Maurer who also produced has apparently been trying to get the film up for some time. This slow uptake does not necessarily reflect on anything other than the fact that the movie business is tough, but it is hard not to read this back into this sweet if shopworn movie.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 August 2023. Also published at Rotten Tomatoes