By Joan Ellis
A touching comedy about the Catholic Church is not something I’ve been expecting, but here it is. And it’s good.
As Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner) makes her way from resolute belief in Catholic dogma to acceptance of her family’s life choices, old-timers in the audience will remember the dilemmas Catholics faced decades ago when the church forbade living together, sinful movies, birth control, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. As the decades eased by, obedience to the letter eroded as the multitudes began to see the church as guide rather than ruler. They found ways to live freely without diminishing their faith. Eileen Cleary is stuck somewhere along that path and it’s causing her a lot of pain.
Eileen is informed by her bishop that she is one of two women nominated for the title of Woman of the Year in the Catholic Church of her small town. Her family will be interviewed in order to bolster her candidacy with their own goodness. Problem: As the film opens, Eileen is in the process of learning that her son is leaving his wife and two sons for his manicurist, and that her daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is pregnant by artificial insemination and plans to marry her lover Angelique. Add to this laundry list of churchly sins the problem of explaining husband Frank’s recovery from alcoholism (Michael McGrady in a gentle, lovely performance). If she navigates these rough waters to victory over her rival, she will be blessed with the absolution of her sins delivered by the visiting bishop of Dublin (Richard Chamberlain).
God and her pastor know how worthy Eileen is. A true believer, dutiful to a fault, she has built her life on the teachings of the church. But as her family begins to make choices acceptable in today’s culture but unacceptable to her church, she struggles with her own rigidity, and family members distance themselves. The question hanging over the film is clear: Can the Catholic Church remain a haven for the faithful who are trying to adjust to enormous social change without changing their definitions of sin? And if they can’t embrace change, where will the flock go?
The formidable Kathleen Turner, with strong support from a fine cast, manages to make us laugh heartily as she lofts serious questions into the air. She is thoroughly credible as a believer bewildered by the foibles of both her family and her church. As Shannon, Emily Deschanel is superb as she forces her mother to accept the wave of the new world and encourages her to build on the best of it with her own values. Their scenes together resonate with a wonderful intelligence as two generations wrestle with change.
When Shannon begs for her mother’s understanding: “Don’t give me church speak, what do ‘you’ think?”
Eileen replies, “ I don’t have to think. I’m a Catholic.” Those days are over. She has to think now, and that’s not inconsistent with her faith.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.