It may have taken 18 years to get to the screen, but when comedy-drama The Miracle Club hits theaters on July 14, moviegoers have Downton Abbey star Maggie Smith to thank for it.
I recently had a Zoom chat with Irish director Thaddeus O'Sullivan, who says, "The film was very hard to finance. We willed it to happen. ... Because somebody has to say it will happen. And when I said that, I had Maggie Smith at my back."
What Is The Miracle Club About?
Here's how studio Sony Pictures Classics describes The Miracle Club:
Set in 1967, THE MIRACLE CLUB follows the story of three generations of close friends, Lily (Maggie Smith), Eileen (Kathy Bates), and Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) of Ballygar, a hard-knocks community in Dublin, who have one tantalizing dream: to win a pilgrimage to the sacred French town of Lourdes, that place of miracles that draws millions of visitors each year.
When the chance to win presents itself, the women seize it. However, just before their trip, their old friend Chrissie (Laura Linney) arrives in Ballygar for her mother’s funeral, dampening their good mood and well-laid plans.
The women set out on the journey that they hope will change their lives, with Chrissie, a skeptical traveler, joining in place of her mother. The glamour and sophistication of Chrissie, who has just returned from a nearly 40-year exile in the United States, are not her only distancing traits: Old wounds are reopened along the way, forcing the women to confront their pasts even as they travel in search of a miracle.
Directed by award-winning Irish filmmaker Thaddeus O’Sullivan, THE MIRACLE CLUB is based on a story by Jimmy Smallhorne, with a screenplay by Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer.
From HBO to Sony Pictures Classics, With Maggie Smith's Help
The film first went to HBO, but the script couldn't be nailed down to the cablenet's satisfaction at the time.
Says O'Sullivan, "It was the script, I think, as ever. It's always the script. I think that the issue, I think, was, is it a comedy, or is it a drama?
"In the earlier drafts, it was very much focused on the comedic aspect of it, and people were looking for more of a drama as well.
"When I first talked to HBO about it, they wanted me to engage with it and see what I would do with that aspect of it.
"Then we ran into problems with some legal issue and I stepped away. I thought it had been made, and then it came back to me.
"There was a writer involved who had brought a lot of the drama to it in various drafts. So I engaged with him on this new iteration, which really pleased me because that's what I like about it.
"And that's what the actors really engaged with, the mixture of drama and comedy."
An Irish Story -- With a British/Irish/American Cast
But, with the support of Smith and bringing in additional writers, The Miracle Club finally went forward -- even though its cast is largely non-Irish.
Maggie Smith is British; Kathy Bates and Laura Linney are American; Agnes O'Casey is of Irish descent (her great-grandfather was Irish playwright Seán O'Casey), but she was raised in London.
The best-known Irish member of the main cast is Stephen Rea, who's from Belfast in Northern Ireland, and plays the husband of Bates' character.
"I get it," says O'Sullivan. "Don't worry. I get blasted. ... I would say it works. The thing is that although they're stars, they have engaged with these characters.
"The reason they're stars, is because they have the ability to engage with characters in such an instinctive, intuitive way, and to explain to audiences what these characters are feeling."
The Miracle Club and Catholicism
While the characters' individual attitudes toward faith vary, the film is respectful of both their sincere beliefs and their doubts.
There are some tragic revelations behind why Chrissie left Ireland and broke contact with her mother, and what happened to her in America afterward, but they're handled in a non-sensational way.
It's also good to remember that The Miracle Club takes place 56 years ago, and that the Catholic catechesis the older female characters -- who are from a working-class area -- received was probably 50 or more years before that.
While the women respect the Church as an institution, their day-to-day understanding of the Faith may not always be deeply grounded in theology, but is instead more reflective of the folk beliefs of the day.
After the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, the breakdown of Irish society left very little other than the Church as an organizing principle.
And, because the British government discriminated against Catholics, the Church became a strong and respected force in society, and remained so until the 21st Century.
"In Ireland," says O'Sullivan, "the colonial experience historically was what everybody was dealing with. There was no room for the Church or for anything other than an Anglophone experience.
"Irish culture and Irish religious life was, as they used to say, in the ha'penny place. You weren't allowed to engage with any of this.
"So the Church was much admired, and the Christian Brothers in my case, because I was taught by the Christian Brothers.
"They were the ones who set up the institutions and made sure that our Catholics had decent education. That was the culture that I grew up in."
But that doesn't mean that ordinary Catholics had a nuanced understanding of the Faith ... or of the reality of the healing waters of Lourdes.
What Lourdes Meant to Irish Catholics
Located in southwestern France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, the town is known for the Sanctuaires Notre-Dame de Lourdes, or the Domain, a major Catholic pilgrimage site.
To this day, millions of pilgrims each year visit the Grotto of Massabielle (Grotto of the Apparitions). There, in 1858, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local woman. The waters flowing from a spring in the grotto are believed to healing, even miraculous, properties.
To date, the Church has recognized about 70 confirmed and documented medical miracles at Lourdes (click here to learn more about that process). Now, that's out of more than 7,000 reported miracles.
But, some of the women in The Miracle Club seem to think that one automatically receives a miracle for just showing up at Lourdes and touching the waters.
Says O'Sullivan, "When we grew up, I grew up in a very intense Catholic culture, every aspect of our lives, and Lourdes was an important, and pilgrimage was an important feature of our world.
"People talked about Lourdes all the time, and they talked about miracles all the time. There was an assumption on my part that miracles took place there."
So, Are There Miracles in The Miracle Club?
Not to give away the ending, but the characters who go on the pilgrimage to Lourdes find themselves profoundly changed -- just not perhaps in the way each expected.
After all, there are the miracles we want, and then there's the ones we actually get.
Note for Parents
Rated PG-13 for language and some thematic elements, The Miracle Club isn’t really a film for the whole family. I’d say it’s best for high-schoolers and up, or a great night out for some adult friends.
Here's the trailer:
And my full video interview with O'Sullivan:
Image: (L-R) Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates in 'The Miracle Club'/Sony Pictures Classics
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.