THE MIRACLE (1991) ** 3/4
How sad, how cynical, how insensitive it is to dismiss small films and human stories. But that's the name of Hollywood showbiz (not film art) and that's why we so often have to look abroad for civilized motion pictures.
For its initial stretch, THE MIRACLE is just that, a civilized pleasure. Set in the seaside Irish town of Bray, near Dublin, it introduces teen-agers Jimmy (Byrne), a good sax player and the orphan son of an affectionate but bottle-prone musician; and Rose (Pilkington), an unglamorous duckling from a higher social stratum. The kids are original, articulate and have the appeal of humorously sensitive beings.
Their relationship is one of loving friendship, with the stress on "loving" for Rose who openly wishes Jimmy were more than a pal. It's a relaxed, cerebral, even poetic relationship. The couple walk about, observing people as subjects for writing, making up stories about them and composing literate, felicitous descriptions, as for a nondescript man : " The drabness of his life was so complete as to have its own fascination."
Sighting a new subject, pretty and pleasantly plump Renee (D'Angelo), they concoct a fiction about a woman in hiding after a murder. Up to now, and by movie standards, it is refreshing to see an Ireland-- granted we are not in Ulster-- shown for something else than politics, civil strife, poverty or leprechaun sentimentality. Instead this is a return to the Ireland of Celtic myths, letters and imagination.
Jimmy, smitten with the older woman, pursues her and follows her to Dublin where she has the leading part in a pretty awful stage production of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN -- originally a marvellous 1939 movie with Marlene Dietrich as a fascinating saloon hostess and James Stewart as a pacifist lawman.
At this point the movie makes a melodramatic, pulp-novel, Oedipal turn. Renee is really Jimmy's not-dead mother, but not only won't she tell the boy, she keeps behaving seductively. The boy's attraction to the woman is quite credible, but Renee's (and the plot's) flirting with incest is unhealthy as well as unexplained.
THE MIRACLE was until now nicely eccentric, less in the sense of amusingly off-the-wall and more in the original meaning of something off-center, pleasantly askew. As when Jimmy is reluctantly recruited into his father's jazz band, and quits it to play sax riffs for an amazing lady contortionist. Later too, Rose's affair (for an animal-rights ulterior motive) with a young elephant keeper, adds another unorthodox twist of whimsy.
In the past, the fancifulness of Irish-born writer-director Neil Jordan's resulted in the splendid (but nost underrated) THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, the good (but slightly overrated) MONA LISA, and the deserved fiasco WE'RE NO ANGELS.
THE MIRACLE, like the well-turned sentences of its young protagonists, has many good inventions. Its peripherals are excellent, whether the choice of music (by Anne Dudley) that underlines the perennial appeal of old songs (notably Hoagy Carmichael's 1929 "Stardust ) or the camerawork by Philippe Rousselot (Hope and Glory, The Bear) that shifts beautifully with the moods.
So long as fancy operates, especially in the rapport of the two youngsters, the film is a winner. But the mother-son involvement rapidly becomes heavy, uncomfortable, unconvincing and uninvolving. Hence a rating of just under ***.