In the French market town of Lourdes in 1858, a young woman named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have communicated with the Virgin Mary herself in a grotto. In the years following this significant event, the site became of great importance to those of the Catholic Church. Annually Lourdes sees over 5 million people making the pilgrimage to bathe in the waters of the grotto. These waters are said to provide miraculous healing properties curing illnesses of both the body and of the soul.
A century later in 1960 Dublin, Ireland, several women within the small working-class suburb of Ballyfermot seek to win a local talent show. The first prize of which will be tickets to make their dreams a reality with a trip to Lourdes. Eileen (Kathy Bates), Lily (Maggie Smith) and the young mother Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) each have their own reasons for wanting to make the journey. Collectively, it will be a moment of freedom for these women who up until now have known little.
The ladies win the tickets but an unexpected visitor arrives on the eve of their pilgrimage. Chrissie (Laura Linney), in exile for 40 years, returns from the USA for her mother’s funeral. Accompanying the trio in her mother’s stead, her presence stirs up bitter memories long forgotten. As old wounds reopen, the women must confront their pasts if they are to have a future. Along the way, they find that miracles can come in the most unexpected forms.
The Miracle Club has had a long road to finally making it to the silver screen. Almost 20 years ago, Joshua D. Maurer and Dublin born James Smallhorne‘s screenplay was sold with James set to direct the already attached actors Smith and Bates. While the project didn’t go forward at the time, it has now picked up with a new director in the award-winning fellow Dubliner, Thaddeus O’Sullivan.
This sense of hometown belonging lends itself greatly to the film’s authenticity in recreating 1960s Dublin. At times, the movie feels like a film made in a different age for just how well it teleports us to the era. Presenting characters of devout religious faith, the story tackles what may be considered outdated ideas by some but does so in a tactful and nuanced way. Brilliant costume design by Judith Williams also helps realise this particular point in history, a time when the church and faith in miracles were of paramount importance to the people of these small villages.
Lourdes is then too presented as this larger-than-life place of beauty. We learn of its history and great importance as we view it, in awe through the eyes of the ladies of Ballyfermot. There are interesting examinations on the commercialism of such a tourist trap as well. As the ladies go through a gift shop, they can’t help but comment on whether Jesus Christ would have appreciated such a holy place being turned into a market (spoilers for the Bible, he wasn’t keen on it).
Other themes of heartbreak, redemption and even female empowerment are explored throughout the film as the men of Ballyfermot for the first time discover how hard it is to live without their wives. Stephen Rea as Eileen‘s gruff but loveable husband Frank is a standout as he attempts to keep their house and family in order while she is gone.
The real draw of The Miracle Club though is its amazing cast of talented proven leading ladies. The tale of woe which binds many of their characters together is quite mysterious by design with us only learning exactly why Chrissie‘s arrival is such a painful subject late in the film. Unfortunately, by then, audiences may have already chosen a side based on what is made apparent from the start. With Lily and particularly Eileen being so toxic and hateful at times, they can be exceptionally hard to empathise with.
I also feel that some updating to the film’s script or character relations may have been necessary after such long delays in production. I may be able to buy the Tennessee-born Bates as a native of Dublin but not that she and the substantially younger Linney were once childhood friends of similar age. It goes to show an actor can turn in a fine performance and yet still feel miscast.
Despite these minor issues, The Miracle Club remains a heart-warming and joyful experience. Highlighting the importance of letting go of past transgressions and to make your own miracles rather than waiting for them. The is the type of film that I’m sure my Irish mother will love to watch and remind her of growing up back home.