Producers: Chris Curling, Joshua D. Maurer, Alixandre Witlin, Larry Bass, Aaron Farrell, John Gleeson and Oisin O’Neill   Director: Thaddeus O’Sullivan   Screenplay: Jimmy Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer   Cast: Maggie Smith, Laura Linney, Kathy Bates, Agnes O’Casey, Mark O’Halloran, Stephen Rea, Mark McKenna, Niall Buggy, Hazel Doupe and Eric D. Smith   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: C

It’s a commonplace to say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but if Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s film is anything to go by, so is the one to Lourdes.  “The Miracle Club” is so intent on warming our hearts and teaching life lessons that even an estimable cast can’t save it from drowning in a sea of schmaltz.

Drowning, in fact, is a key element of the long-ago tragedy that propels the film’s narrative.  In the working-class Dublin neighborhood of Ballygar ca. 1967, elderly Lily Fox (Maggie Smith), who hobbles about with one leg shorter than the other, still mourns the death of her nineteen-year old son Declan four decades earlier, visiting a memorial marking the spot on the coast where he perished in the sea—a scene made effective by Smith, always a joy to watch even in inferior material, and evocative in John Conroy’s lustrous widescreen cinematography.  As will later be revealed, Lily also has reason to feel guilt over Declan’s demise.

Now, however, Lily is mourning the recent death of a close friend, Maureen Ahearn, while also bustling about in preparation for an appearance at a talent show sponsored by the Ballygar parish; she’s in a singing trio with Eileen Dunne (Kathy Bates, rather too strident for such tame fare) and young Dolly Hennessy (likably tense Agnes O’Casey), hoping to win the first prize of two tickets to the shrine at Lourdes, where veneration to Mary, the mother of Jesus, offers the hope of miracle cures.  Dolly prays that her young son Daniel (Eric D. Smith), who refuses to speak, will find his voice there, while Eileen is worried about a lump she’s found on her breast.  And although they only come in second—winning a slab of bacon—the young boy who takes first place singing an Irish tune generously gives them the tickets.

But there’s a further surprise—the reappearance of Maureen’s long-estranged daughter Chrissie (Laura Linney, calmly straightforward in playing against her more colorful co-stars), who left forty years ago and hasn’t been back since.  Among the items her mother left behind for her is a third ticket to Lourdes, which she hands to the pastor, Father Byrne (Mark O’Halloran), telling him to pass it along to someone who can use it.  He gives it to Eileen so that all the members of the trio can make the trip.  At the last minute Chrissie decides to go as well, completing the quartet.

The rest of the film falls into two alternating parts.  The larger concentrates on the experience of the four women in Lourdes (which they seem to reach, oddly enough, by bus—a reflection of the fact that the film’s budget apparently couldn’t extend to shooting in France.  A curiously small-scaled version of the shrine was fashioned in Ireland, and proves the most feeble element of John Hand’s otherwise quite decent period production design—Judith Williams’ sixties costumes are also excellent. 

The emphasis in their stay is on reconciliation.  It’s not difficult to predict Chrissie’s reason for leaving Ballygar long before the script reveals it, and the rationale behind the animosity that Eileen and Lily feel toward her is only slightly less obvious.  All the old hostility is swept away with remarkable ease, though, as the women reconnect and inevitably become supportive friends.  As for Dolly, her story is connected with Chrissie’s through a melodramatic confession that brings a feminist slant to bear on the proceedings by commenting with what some might consider unbecoming jocularity on a hot-button moral issue.

That thread involving women finally coming into their own is also conveyed in a thoroughly sitcomish fashion by occasional cuts back to Dublin, where the husbands who either forbade them to go to Lourdes or beseeched them not to are portrayed as comically unable to get along without them.  Goofy Niall Buggy, as Lily’s spouse, is befuddled at being left alone, while intense Mark McKenna, as Dolly’s, proves incapable of even putting a diaper on their toddler properly. The worst ridicule, however, is foisted on veteran Stephen Rea, saddled with humiliating material as Mr. Dunne, who can neither carry groceries home without dropping them nor cook them up for his large brood without the children chortling over the inedible result.  All three of the men learn a lesson in humility about how to treat their wives during their absence, and welcome them back effusively.

That’s only one example of how the movie can’t make its points with even a smidgen of understatement.  Another comes when Eileen, whose faith is so unquestioning that she feels that going to Lourdes is a proper alternative to seeing a doctor, is disgusted to learn how few miracle cures have ever been effected at the shrine, and it’s up to Father Byrne, whom she’s actually believes Chrissie has been trying to seduce, to deliver a heavy-handed moral about the place: “You don’t come to Lourdes for a miracle, Eileen, you come for the strength to go on when there is no miracle.”  At which point she accepts nurse Chrissie’s offer to accompany her to seek out the best medical treatment they can find.

By the time the picture, desultorily directed by O’Sullivan and limply edited by Alex Mackie, with a cloying score by Edmund Butt as a saccharine overlay, completes the round-trip journey back in Ballygar, you’re likely to be amazed that such a group of gifted actors have lavished their talents on such a well-meaning but woebegone script.  But that seems the unfortunate pattern for most of the movies starring ensembles of actresses of a certain age that have appeared over the last few years.  The screenplay for “The Miracle Club” was reportedly languishing for nearly two decades before funding to produce it was finally cobbled together.

Which proves that another trite commonplace is incomplete: it’s not only good things that come to those who wait–sometimes mediocre ones do, too.