Sweet and well-meaning but bland and disappointing, The Wonder Club is one of those slow, meandering Irish dramas that inspire more respect than excitement. Set in a seaside town near Dublin in 1967, it centers on a disparate group of women who travel to Lourdes to honor a friend and the various ways the spiritual influence of the journey changes them forever.
THE WONDER CLUB ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Chrissie Ahearn (played by a misguided but nonetheless distinguished Laura Linney, in another noble, polished performance) returns home for her mother’s funeral, only to discover to her chagrin that the chapel is empty. It seems everyone is going to a talent show charity benefit in honor of her mother. The first prize consists of two tickets to Lourdes accompanied by the local priest.
Chrissie has lived in America for 40 years. Her mother’s old friends are not happy to see her. Much of the film that follows is devoted to the complex reasons why Chrissie left town in anger, resentment and disgrace. It seems she loved a boy named Declan Fox, who drowned at sea in 1927 at the age of 27, leaving her pregnant and desperate. Declan’s mother Lily (the great Maggie Smith, struggling for the first time in her illustrious career with a huge unintelligible Irish accent) has never forgiven Chrissie for aborting her child after Declan’s death, and Chrissie has Lily’s best friend Eileen (Kathy Bates) never forgive. for revealing her personal secrets to the entire town, making Chrissie the object of ridicule and more than a little local animosity, as well as a pariah for her own mother. A multitude of facts, whispers and lies are revealed in a long-winded screenplay that doesn’t adequately explore anything beyond superficial character development.
On the pilgrimage to Lourdes, Chrissie’s late mother’s three best friends – Eileen, Lily and a younger woman named Dolly – board the bus full of hope and anticipation, but Chrissie, who sees the whole adventure as a religious joke, also joins them. out of guilt for ignoring her mother’s love for 40 years. In the film’s only attempt at irony or humor, Lourdes is revealed to be a rather embarrassing tourist attraction, replete with a “Hotel Bernadette” with a gift shop for Virgin Mary souvenirs.
Chrissie is forced to share a room with the ladies who made her homecoming miserable, which makes no sense, but gives them all a contrived chance to confront their true feelings. In the third act, the film breaks down into a series of tearful stories where they all pray for their pilgrimage to bring them miracles: Eileen has breast cancer, Lily and Chrissie suffer from traumatic memories that need to be resolved, and Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) has a young son named Danny who hasn’t spoken a word, for unexplained reasons known only to the director, Thaddeus O’Sullivan. The film is about how Lourdes, despite countless challenges and drawbacks, has a strange, restorative spiritual effect that reconciles them all in revelations of love and forgiveness that are not entirely plausible.
The much-needed charm missing from the script for this lackluster film falls on the ladies who live there, and they work hard to make it work. Mastering their diverse Irish accents is daunting, trying to understand them is an even greater effort. The solemn direction and lack of pace come uncomfortably close to a lamentation. The Wonder Club is a sincere and meritorious effort, enhanced by John Conroy’s blissful cinematography that vividly captures the quiet stoicism of rural Ireland, yet it leaves you empty, malnourished and yearning for more.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.