The Miracle (1991)


Irish director Neil Jordan's least-known film is perhaps his most aptly named. The overblown ghost story High Spirits may not levitate your mood, and the stunning secret of The Crying Game may not make you weep, but The Miracle will stick with you for weeks after you've seen it, making you think you can smell the sea or hear the first few notes of a jazz solo in the most unlikely places. This tiny gem of a movie has more in common with Mona Lisa than Interview With the Vampire or any of Jordan's bigger-budget pictures. It includes performances from little-known actors and cinematography of such unexpected beauty that you find your eyes misting as you watch.

Jimmy and Rose, teenagers living in the small Irish coastal town of Bray, spend boring summer afternoons making up wild romantic stories about the people they see on the beach. One day they spot Renee, a beautiful American actress who has come to their little resort after taking a role at a mediocre Dublin theater. Rose thinks Renee is more interesting as a mystery to ponder, a potential film noir heroine with dark secrets in her past. But Jimmy becomes infatuated and wants to know all about Renee, to find the real story. This arouses Rose's jealousy to such an extent that she pursues an affair with a hot-headed lion tamer from an itinerant circus, hoping to tame him in turn.

Jimmy's ostensibly widowed father is a frustrated musician, who has taught his son to play the saxophone and tried, with bumbling affection, to instill the proper values concerning music and love. Yet the older man becomes enraged when he discovers his son's obsession and orders Jimmy to stay away from Renee. "The trouble with women of a certain age is that they're of a certain age," Rose observes wryly. Of course this only arouses the boy further, and he's further confused by Renee's strange, frustrated attempts to cling to his affections while maintaining her distance. Despite his prurient interest in the folk of the town, Jimmy is just beginning to explore his own desires; he aches for the older woman not as a sexual object or a worldly tutor, but as the key to something missing in his life that he can't even define.

Jimmy's world is suffused with the amorphous, encompassing presence of the sea and with jazz, which his father plays and demands that he practice and which Renee sings. Jimmy's most intimate moments with her take place when he accompanies her on standards and when they talk by the water, which symbolizes simultaneously the danger of drowning and the possibility of escaping utterly the confines of his small-town existence. Rose sees those possibilities more clearly, seeing herself and Jimmy reflected in the caged circus animals, plotting a grand sacrificial gesture that will release them both from their confinements.

Like The Crying Game, The Miracle hinges on a hidden twist when one character makes an unexpected discovery about the identity of another. In this film, though, any attentive viewer will perceive it long before the revelation begins the upheavals of the climax. It's a very old story -- one of the oldest, as Rose wryly remarks -- yet the replaying of the myth in this fairy tale setting changes the focus of the inevitable discovery. The real mystery of The Miracle concerns not the secret but the unknowns of growing up, choosing dreams to pursue, deciding whether to concentrate on traditional melodies or let wild improvisation bring dissonance -- and, possibly, astonishing beauty -- into the world.

The film has a deliberately manufactured feel, conscious of the literariness of its own dialogue and the rose-colored lenses with which it views the small Irish town. As Rose and Jimmy walk across the "nun-swept pier" of Bray, creating fantasy histories for the people they see, they congratulate themselves for coming up with particularly luscious turns of phrase. The cinematography doesn't shirk from showing the run-down buildings and the ravages of poverty, but the effect is more that of peering into a haunted house than seeing a realistic landscape. The traveling circus lends a purposefully carnivalesque air to the proceedings. The threat of a satiric twist, an over-the-top performance like those on the Dublin stage, hovers menacingly; it's not clear until the end whether The Miracle will be romantic, tragic, or a burlesque.

Vivid performances by young actors Niall Byrne and Lorraine Pilkington and veteran Donal McCann keep the surreal drama in focus. Beverly D'Angelo's Renee remains maddeningly elusive; the movie never really explores her as a character, but only as an archetype, yet the actress gives her a powerful, tragic aura. If Renee is not a sensitively fleshed-out character like Jimmy and his father, her own frustrated dreams subsumed in the demands of the plot, at least she's not reduced to the mystery woman who first appears beside the train.

The foggy seaside of Bray is a character in its own right... salty and mystical, where decades of ennui have not diminished the possibility that something extraordinary could happen at any time. Jordan's homecoming moves from brutal to transcendent in a breathtaking sequence of images and dialogue that won't soon be forgotten.

 

[ Michelle Erica Green ]