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John AndersonJuly 14, 2023
A still photo from ‘The Miracle Club’ shows Agnes O'Casey, Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith standing together in front of a desk.Sony Pictures Classics

“France?” exclaims one astonished Irishwoman. “I thought you were going to Lourdes?!” The 1960s-era village from which the pilgrims depart in “The Miracle Club” isn’t a particularly sophisticated place, but at the same time, the site of St. Bernadette’s vision isn’t really part of the mappable world to the folks of Ballygar. It’s more like an outpost of Heaven, an uncharted light at the end of a tunnel of devotion.

There’s quite a bit of shamrock-flavored humor in director Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s feel-good, feel-bad, feel-better comedy, and a wee bit of confusion, if one uses standard movie shorthand: The first person we see is Lily Fox (Maggie Smith), teary-eyed beside the memorial stone of a young man who died in 1927. Are we in 1927? No, the age of the stone and that of Lily suggest the death occurred sometime before. Then we see a younger woman modeling a new dress for her indifferent husband (Mark McKenna), then a cut to Lily wrestling her way into the same dress. Then we meet Eileen (Kathy Bates), who is wearing THE VERY SAME FROCK. Are they the same woman? Are we traveling in time?

Only musically: Lily, Eileen and the younger Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) are skipping their friend Maureen’s funeral to perform as The Miracles, at the parish talent show. First prize: two tickets to Lourdes. (They sing, and very well, the old Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine,” which has, coincidentally, the same tune as “My Sweet Lord.” Just ask George Harrison’s lawyers.) It isn’t a major excursion by frequent-flier standards: a bus, a ferry and another bus. But they may as well be going to another world.

It isn’t a major excursion by frequent-flier standards: a bus, a ferry and another bus. But they may as well be going to another world.

None of the three women has an obvious malady that she hopes to have cured at the Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes, or at the Grotto of Massabielle (Grotto of the Apparitions). Lily knows that her missing leg won’t grow back; Dolly’s prayer is that her young son, Daniel (Eric D. Smith), will finally speak, as he hasn’t done for his entire life; Eileen has found a lump on her breast and is keeping it secret, entrusting its treatment to the Blessed Virgin rather than a doctor. But this is 1967 and Eileen is the ornery type who is easily embarrassed. Lily, too. Dolly is the one who is really counting on the promise of Lourdes. And she’s the one who doesn’t know what’s happening when the late Maureen’s daughter, Chrissie (Laura Linney), appears at the talent show and stops all conversations cold.

There is history among these women, as becomes obvious immediately, as well as with Chrissie’s late mother, and with that dead man at the seaside stone. To reveal almost any of it would spoil the few minor surprises that occur in a narrative where miracles of the spirit if not the body may very well happen. What is transformative in “The Miracle Club” is the complete shift in tone, and arrival of dramatic gravity, at the moment Linney enters the movie.

Smith is always a pro, likewise Bates, but they have been directed by O’Sullivan into a kind of saucy Irishness that seems clichéd. Perhaps that was the plan: Chrissie, who has been in the United States for 40 years and hadn’t talked to her mother in as many, snaps Lily and Eileen to attention, transfers all their excess baggage from the lost to the found, and makes “The Miracle Club,” which is poised to be about one thing, about another entirely.

Do you really believe Mary appeared in this place to that girl, Chrissie asks the tour group’s leader, Father Dermot (Mark O’Halloran)? He answers yes, but “whether she did or not is unimportant.” A surprised Chrissie responds, “You might want to keep that to yourself,” but he doesn’t have to; ultimately, they all learn it. Not everyone expects to find a cure when they come to Lourdes, but as the very quotable Father Dermot says, “You come for the strength to go on when there is no miracle.”

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