Joanne Nucho on The Miracle
The Miracle is an unsung yet crucial point in Neil Jordan’s film career, a departure from much of his work, most conspicuously because it takes place entirely in Dublin, Ireland. Perhaps it was a return home that prompted him to create a film about Ireland itself, and more specifically, the Irish family unit, which he would later revisit in 1997’s The Butcher Boy.
The film begins at the start of summer, a time loaded with expectations and the promise of excitement following the bondage of the school year. Jimmy (Niall Byrne) and Rose (Lorraine Pilkington), childhood friends, spend hours daydreaming and making up stories for the oddball locals that surround them. No one is safe from their attempts to make sense of their world as they invent fantasies to interpret the mundane happenings of their seaside Dublin suburb. Each person they encounter is fodder for their notebook, a kind of sketchpad they use to develop the people around them into characters for their writing. Despite their dreaming, however, Jimmy and Rose are still defined by familial circumstances and they never contemplate escape or running away from home. Instead, they make the world around them conform to their vision of how it should be, creating their own chance encounters, happy endings, and ridiculous plot twists. This summer, however, they begin to lose control over their imaginations, and the stories they create seem to take on a life of their own.
In an early scene, Rose and Jimmy are lying on a patch of grass, watching her father play golf. He is obviously middle class, as both his and Rose’s accents betray, and he clearly disapproves of his daughter’s friendship with Jimmy, who is working class and lives alone with his musician father. Rose, angry with her father’s lack of regard, tells Jimmy that she’d take his father’s excessive drinking over her father’s habit of ignoring her completely. Just to prove a point, she steps onto the nearby tracks as a train advances towards them and screams to her father, trying to get his attention. Jimmy pushes Rose out of the way at the very last moment, and her father finally turns around, far too late, to acknowledge her. Though the story focuses more intently on Jimmy’s rebellion against his father that summer, Rose’s rebellion against her father’s behavior and bourgeois values remains a consistent narrative arc as well.
Neil Jordan’s films often throw conventional foils into the mix that yield , fantastic, unconventional results. In The Miracle, both a mysterious woman and a circus coming to town signify the end of an era for Jimmy and Rose, as well as the rendering of their dream world into reality: Characters too fantastic for them to have ever invented suddenly appear before them.
The first time Jimmy and Rose set eyes on the engimatic Renee Baker (Beverly D’Angelo), she has just stepped off of the train into their seaside town. They are immediately enthralled by the obvious anachronism of such noirish elegance in their drab midst. “She must be French,” they conclude, and continue to follow her every time she appears, conjuring wild stories about her identity. As Jimmy’s obsession mounts, Rose’s jealousy starts to become more apparent. After a few efforts to trick him into kissing her, she decides to have her own summer fling with a circus boy who trains elephants and lions to perform. “I’ll humanize him,” she says casually, all the while trying to make the seriously distracted Jimmy jealous.
Meanwhile, Jimmy’s relationship with his father (Donal McCann) continues to deteriorate, music being the only bond between them. After Jimmy reluctantly agrees to join his band at the local music club, his father gets extremely drunk, and has to be dragged home, as he drunkenly, emasculatingly weeps over the death of Jimmy’s mother.
Conversely, Jimmy focuses on the pursuit of Renee, whose enigmatic, old-fashioned mannerisms and dress exude this image of an unattainable image. After following her to a Dublin theater, he learns that she is the star of a musical, and he takes to watching her performances. She appears to take somewhat of an interest in him, but she repeatedly pushes him away.
Jordan establishes a duality between Renee and Rose, as one looks the model of femininity, and the other is trying to rebel against it. Renee is beautiful and hints at the erotic, but she remains chaste, reserved, and inaccessible. Rose, however, is rebellious, aggressive, doesn’t wear makeup or “feminine” clothing, and is sexually amorous. Things, however, are not nearly as definable as they seem. Rose and Renee are not romantic rivals. The audience is let in on the secret of Renee’s identity long before Jimmy himself finds out—Renee is Jimmy’s mother.
The Miracle as though nothing much
has changed. The last time we see Renee,
she is leaving the seaside Dublin suburb
on a train, while Jimmy’s father walks along
the tracks, hung over from the previous
night’s drinking. The family is still estranged,
and though Jimmy got to meet his mother,
she is leaving them again, and his father
is still unable to face her. However, one
final element of the fantastic emerges,
and it’s possible that the teenagers did
triumph, if at least for a while. Rose,
having quite unceremoniously lost her virginity
to the circus carny, steals his keys and
releases his animals from their cages. “It
was just like I imagined it to be,” she
says. We know she is lying, but somehow
it doesn’t matter. As the animals run free,
eluding the grasp of the adult world, Jimmy
and Rose walk along the beach, as always,
inventing their own versions of reality,
and presumably subverting it whenever possible.
The great trick of The Miracle is
that we’re never sure how much of the proceedings
are supposed to be taken for the reality
of the world in the film. At some point,
the viewer may have to let go and allow
space for the characters to subvert the
continuity of their filmic reality. It is
quite possible that the animals are not
actually running loose at the end of the
film anywhere other than in the minds and
thoughts of Rose and Jimmy. Halfway through
the film, I began to wonder if Renee actually
was Jimmy’s mother, or if she was just another
character his imagination had conjured.
Brilliantly ambiguous as it is, The Miracle
also marks a developing point for Neil Jordan’s
career, as that blurring between reality
and fiction, would grow more common in his
later films. In The Butcher Boy,
the viewer is led to see the world in through
the perspective of a deluded child. In fact,
the viewer is so deeply submerged in the
child’s viewpoint that we must identify
with his behavior in disconcerting ways
that many films would never dare. Likewise,
the subverting of gender roles, here both
in the glamorous femininity of Renee, and
the frustrated masculinity of Jimmy’s father,
later come to full fruition in The Crying
Wrapped up in ideal types and filmic
conventions that are constantly dissolving
before our eyes, Neil Jordan’s films always
surprise in their ability to communicate
their complex realities, whether through
hybridized genre or stark realism, and often
a combination of the two—here the clash
between the fantastic and the everyday occurs
when we do not fit our ideal types. By the
end, almost everyone has removed their mask,
only to slip back into their accepted roles