For Thaddeus O’Sullivan, The Miracle Club has been a project close to his heart for a long time.
“I originally got involved quite a long time ago. About 15 years ago, when HBO were interested in producing it. For reasons out of my hands, its development was put on hold.”
Set in 1960s Ireland, three close friends Eileen (Kathy Bates), Lily (Maggie Smith) and Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette of Lourdes. Along the way, wounds are opened by the sudden arrival of an old friend, Chrissie (Laura Linney), whose presence threatens the group.
“The characters and the world I know very well, having grown up and worked near Dublin all my life. The added attraction of course was getting Maggie Smith and Kathy Bates onboard too.”
Upon the resurrection of the project, more talent started to follow, with Laura Linney the crucial piece of the puzzle.
“It was very important that we get the character of Chrissie right. The other characters of course are equally important, but their past trauma is linked to Chrissie’s character. So, that sort of makes her a leading character.
“Laura was really interested in the character and the world, and she really wanted to work with Kathy [Bates]. She was already friends with Maggie. We just got very lucky.”
Thaddeus O’Sullivan has had a fruitful career working with some of the best modern talent, including Colin Farrell, Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Bettany and Brendan Gleeson. But the chance to work with the cast of The Miracle Club was a new high for the director.
“We have three big stars. There’s always a tendency for the star power to knock the reality out of the film, but we were lucky that the actors were interested in grabbing that nuance and naturalism of the situation. That detail. That’s what they’re good at. They know when to dig into a character and represent that. And it’s a magical thing to watch.”
He was especially impressed with the confidence of relative newcomer Agnes O’Casey [below, second from left].
“Agnes’ power really creeps up on you. She was wonderful to work with. She was surprisingly secure. She was only out of acting school a few years ago and I marvel at the ease that she learnt from the others. And well, they were only too keen to work with her.”
It was important for O’Sullivan that the film remain honest and life-affirming when it explores some of its more tragic issues of death and faith.
“Our backstory is quite complicated, and it carries a lot of grief; one that the characters have been carrying with them for so many years.”
The pilgrimage to Lourdes was also something that was critical to get right for the film.
“Lourdes is a really big thing in Ireland and a lot of people when I grew up went. It loomed very much over Catholic life.”
The Miracle Club certainly captures the impact of the ‘Lourdes effect’ in giving light to people stuck in tragedy while remaining a quietly feminist picture set in 1960s Ireland.
“To see the women take control of their lives away from the influence of the home and the duty of domestic life is an interesting objection towards the time period’s expectations of women. It’s certainly true that once the women are away from the men, they had a lot more authority to their lives.”
It was also important to make the family connections in these women’s lives sympathetic, otherwise there would be no stakes for the characters.
“Earlier drafts had the men being a real pain in the arse. They had no charm. So, it was important to make them relatable and likeable.”
For a director who has been widely influential in the growth of Irish cinema during the 20th century, O’Sullivan is pleased to continue adding to the canvas of his cinematic culture and is really excited to see where it goes from here.
“There was a period during The Troubles of the ‘80s where people thought, what now? We were like, ‘let’s stop making films entirely about Northern Ireland and the constant struggles and the historical elements that occurred’. And out of that came this feeling of simpler, more human stories.”
He particularly praises the work of Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin) and Colm Bairéad, whose The Quiet Girl was one of the best reviewed films of last year.
“It is one of the most moving and interesting movies I’ve seen in years. It’s such a small film with very big themes. It’s about simple rural life. And Irish cinema has really arrived somewhere very special with that film.”
The Miracle Club may just do the same.
The Miracle Club is in cinemas August 3, 2023