Reel Life: Flick Pix
Sympathy for the Irish women enforcers of religious dogma
By Nora Lee Mandel
(World Premiere in “Spotlight Narrative” at 2023 Tribeca Film Festival)
The Miracle Club
Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Written by: Jimmy Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer, based on a story by Smallhorne
Produced by Chris Curling, Joshua D. Maurer and Alixandre Witlin, Larry Bass and Aaron Farrell, John Gleeson and Oisín O’Neill
91 minutes. Ireland/UK. Not Rated
With: Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith, Agnes O'Casey, Stephen Rea, Mark O’Halloran, Mark Mckenna, and Nial Buggy
Release by Sony Pictures Classics - opens in U.S. theaters July 14, 2023
We’ve seen on screen how cruelly Irish families and their Catholic institutions of the 1950’s/’60s treated free-spirited daughters who broke convention, in Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002), and more selectively in Stephen Frears’ Philomena (2013). But as the revelations of journalists, historians, and government investigations have made the Irish face up to the impact of their strict conservative application of religious strictures, along comes The Miracle Club to spread the balm of forgiveness and a palliative to guilty responsibility.
Set in 1967, the story takes a long introduction to establish sympathy for the enforcers of community standards in Dublin’s working class Ballygar neighborhood -- the downtrodden wives and mothers. With husbands as comically inept at home as the most stereotyped TV fathers, the wives fill up the homes with children, kitchens with meals, and the church with volunteers.
From the opening, three generations of wives are preparing for the night’s church fundraiser: the eldest is mournful “Lily Fox” (Maggie Smith) bringing flowers to a seaside Madonna; then tart-tongued “Eileen Dunne” (Kathy Bates) failing to persuade one of several teen daughters against her dissolute boyfriend; and the mini-skirted youngest “Dolly” (Agnes O'Casey) trying to convince her husband that another approach could “cure” their silent six-year-old son.
Into this busyness, comes a different quiet force – the return of the prodigal daughter from America, well-dressed “Chrissie” (Laura Linney). She’s just missed the funeral service for her mother “Maureen”. But “Father Dermot Byrne” (Mark O’Halloran) assures her the flowers covering the coffin have been paid for and hands over the keys to the house she grew up in -- and was banished from 40 (!) years ago. He is also quick to explain that the night’s fundraiser will go on anyway, because her mother was on the committee to take a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France. She had already purchased a ticket, that her daughter declines to use. So he can pass it on to “Eileen” secretly desperate about her own health.
”Chrissie” is like the ghost at the banquet after the women perform as a pop trio in matching flowery dresses. Nasty retorts are exchanged. But the letter from her mother that “Lily” later hands her at the cemetery softens enough bitterness for them to begin to communicate.
Starting out to Lourdes, the Irish women fully believe in miracles. The context of experiencing the reality there shows just how all-consuming Catholicism was in their lives to understand how their faith in the Church could lead them to reject friend and family who violated its precepts. “Chrissie” gets to vent about past injustices (including a cutting line about the nuns and a confusing claim about who was her confidante), truths are revealed and faced, and there’s some tears.
It is almost incongruous to these truths that the film strains so hard to be heart-warming, and yet this superb cast does manage to pull it off. Even “Eileen”s caustic comments about Lourdes come across as comic relief. And the husbands (including Stephen Rea) manage to cope. Conveniently, “Chrissie” seems to have gotten some sort of unexplained medical training in Boston so she can literally help heal them.
Last year, Irish Catholics sent a “National Synthesis” document to the Vatican, demanding changes in church attitudes and policies, that the former president described as “explosive, life-altering, dogma altering, church altering”. That could be one of the miracles this club will believe in for their future.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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