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6 October 2023

Maggie Smith steals the show in The Miracle Club

The 88-year-old actress is a delight in this Irish film – conveying so much humour, and contempt.

By David Sexton

Why are the Irish so good at telling stories? Discussing this year’s list, the Booker Prize judge James Shapiro offered a utilitarian explanation: “Return on investment. There are certain countries that have invested in arts, that continue to invest in artists and writers. It’s no accident that the arts are flourishing in Ireland.”

Investment? Up to a point, maybe. Yet there could also be some slightly more complicated, even historical reasons why this island’s seven million people, only about 1 per cent of native English speakers in the world, should be so over-represented in so many creative forms. Perhaps deprivation, insularity, intense localism and a long record, still alive in the memory, of sexual and religious repression, and even abuse, actually favour serious storytelling? Certainly, it would take a pretty radical arts funding body to make subsidising these conditions its central policy. Alternatively, there’s always the theory of innate garrulity.

[See also: Ken Loach’s turn to sentimentality]

The Miracle Club stars the sublime Maggie Smith, the fairest flower of Ilford; Kathy Bates, who hails from Memphis, Tennessee; and that diehard New Yorker, Laura Linney. Yet it is as Irish as they come.

It’s 1967 in a suburb of Dublin. The local priest (Mark O’Halloran) is holding a talent contest to raise money for a coach trip to Lourdes: “Lourdes Pilgrimage Fundraiser,” reads the flyer. “First place prize: two tickets to Lourdes. Runner-up prize: boiled bacon joint.”

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Local ladies Lily (Smith, 88) and Eileen (Bates, 75) have joined forces with young mum Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) to form a girl group, the Miracles, wearing lurid floral dresses and knocking out a great performance of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Dolly’s cute little boy Daniel, four or five, has never spoken a word, and they’re hoping for a miracle.

There’s a problem, though. Their best friend, Maureen, who was on the talent show committee, has just died. Father Dermot decides not to cancel the show but instead to make it her wake. Her long-lost daughter Chrissie (Linney, 59) comes home from Boston for the funeral, her first visit since she left in disgrace 40 years ago, pregnant outside of marriage.

Chrissie is not made welcome but she perseveres, joining the pilgrimage to the indignation of the others. Gradually we begin to understand the tangled backstory that has determined and devastated the lives of these three women.

This warm ensemble piece is brought to life by its big-name cast, and was doubtless made possible as a production by their commitment too. Here’s a film that trounces the Bechdel test. Linney brings American directness and modernity to Chrissie, Bates a muddled truculence to Eileen, who was, long ago, Chrissie’s closest friend. But the great treat is to have another chance to spend some time with Smith, beyond Downton or Alan Bennett.

She is, in her quasi-paralytic way, transfixingly wonderful, the smallest twitches and downturns conveying so much experience and contempt. At Maureen’s funeral, Lily gives Chrissie a letter, saying: “Your mam asked me to give you this, in case you came home,” with an incredibly dismissive contraction of her face and tightening of her lips. It’s almost a superpower.

And she remains such a great comedian. Contemplating the statue of the Virgin in the miraculous grotto, Lily shakes her head, saying: “When you think of all she went through, watching her poor son crucified…” “She picked out a nice place to stand, all the same,” says Eileen helpfully.

The men here are pathetic throughout and I don’t think there’s a single scene in which one man talks only to another. They’re all appalled at being left alone to cope. Dolly’s husband lets himself in for a nappy catastrophe with their toddler. Eileen’s shambolic mate bravely tries to make a potato stew, but even starving kids can’t forgive it. Lily’s helpmeet simply takes to his bed in the hope of surviving until she’s back.

The Miracle Club, however, was not made by women. It’s based on a story by Jimmy Smallhorne, a Dubliner who emigrated to the States in 1994 and won a prize at Sundance in 1998 for his debut feature, 2by4, about a closeted gay construction worker in New York. And it is directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, another Dubliner, born in 1947, whose career until now appears to have been mainly in television, directing episodes of Call the Midwife, Silent Witness and Vera. Late fulfilment for them both, perhaps – with Screen Ireland mostly to thank?

“The Miracle Club” is in cinemas now

[See also: God’s Creatures is a powerful portrait of a toxic mother-son relationship]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits