Angela's Ashes

FamilyRepublic of IrelandAlan ParkerMoviesMovie IndustryEntertainmentFrank McCourt

Friday December 24, 1999

     Primitive peoples, or so it's said, resist being photographed, believing that the creation of an image robs them of their souls. A quaint notion, perhaps, but how else can you explain what's happened to "Angela's Ashes"?
     The film version of Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up in Ireland, the most literate of bestsellers, is not the usual case of a book being trashed on its way to the screen. Far from it.
     Director Alan Parker and the screenwriter he shares credit with, Laura Jones, have treated "Angela's Ashes" with scrupulous respect and care. And working with his longtime production team, including cinematographer Michael Seresin, the director has compellingly re-created McCourt's city of Limerick in the 1930s and '40s.
     More than that, Parker, a filmmaker ("Evita," "The Commitments," "Mississippi Burning") not always known for moderation, has done the most restrained and artful work of his career here, beautifully using both established professionals Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle to play McCourt's parents and a fine trio of neophyte actors (Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge) to create the three ages of the youthful author.
     But good as all this is, "Angela's Ashes" is missing something essential, something almost indefinable and perhaps inevitably lacking. Despite extensive use of voice-over (smoothly read by Andrew Bennett), the elegance and wit of McCourt's language, with you every step of the way in the book, is largely missing from the screen. That language made the misery of McCourt's impoverished childhood bearable and even infused it with humor and heart. Without it, the story, beautifully told though it is, feels as if it's lost its soul.
     Part of the problem is that seeing grinding poverty on screen is quite different than reading about it on a page, anyone's page. Using muted, subdued colors, "Angela's Ashes" has quite correctly decided that making misery too pretty would be insupportable. But as a result the family's continual hunger and the ever-present squalor and pestilence of their surroundings grind at us just as they do the McCourts with a depressing relentlessness that the book miraculously avoids.
     "Angela's Ashes" opens with the family living not in Ireland but in Brooklyn in 1935. But despairing situations, in this case the death of Frank McCourt's small sister, haunt them even here and soon the McCourts become, in Frank's droll words, "the only Irish family in history saying goodbye to the Statue of Liberty."
     Back in Limerick, a city known for its piety and its numbing rains, Angela's Catholic family rains disdain on her husband, Malachy, a Protestant from the North. Both Angela's mother, the matriarchal Grandma Sheehan (Ronnie Masterson), and her censorious sister Aggie (Pauline McLynn) never miss an opportunity to say things like "It's the Northern Ireland in you that attracts the dirt" whenever Frank gets filthy, which is often.
     While Watson as Angela is compelling as always, she's mainly called on to suffer and endure; Malachy, as played by Carlyle ("Trainspotting," "The Full Monty"), is a more troubling and complex character.
     Malachy is a craven alcoholic, "a slave to the drink" who has "gone beyond the beyond." But the film, like the book, resists painting him as a villain. Rather Carlyle's haunted father and husband is an ill-starred, inept dreamer, a great spinner of tales who finds the dreariness of Irish reality more than he can manage.
     Because Malachy is so feckless, unable to hold a job for more than a day and incapable of doing anything with money except spend it on the drink, the McCourt family is subject to all manner of depredations. And from flea-ridden mattresses to a waterlogged residence next to the only outhouse in the neighborhood, we get to see them all on screen.
     Mostly what we see is McCourt growing up, embarrassed at his extreme poverty, joyous at sneaking into the Lyric Theater to watch Jimmy Cagney, discovering girls and the wonder of "the Shakespeare," a writer whose words he savors like "mashed potatoes, you can't get enough of them."
     What impacted young McCourt most was his education at the hands of a series of Jesuit fathers. Not shy about opinions, they had no hesitation about blasting "the devil's henchmen in Hollywood" or saying the virtue of taking communion was "now you can die a martyr if you're murdered by Protestants."
     But more eloquent thoughts were expressed as well, by the teacher who said, "Euclid is grace and beauty and elegance," and the one who advised McCourt, "Stock your mind. It's your house of treasure, no one can interfere." It's advice the boy followed and if this beautifully made if flawed film sends people back to his book, it will have done good work for sure.


Angela's Ashes, 1999. R, for sexual content and some language. Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures International present a David Brown/Scott Rudin/Dirty Hands Production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Alan Parker. Producers Scott Rudin, David Brown, Alan Parker. Executive producers Adam Schroeder, Eric Steel. Screenplay Laura Jones and Alan Parker, based on the book by Frank McCourt. Cinematographer Michael Seresin. Editor Gerry Hambling. Costumes Consolata Boyle. Music John Williams. Production design Geoffrey Kirkland. Art director Jonathan McKinstry. Set decorator Jennifer Williams. Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes. Emily Watson as Angela. Robert Carlyle as Dad. Joe Breen as Young Frank. Ciaran Owens as Middle Frank. Michael Legge as Older Frank.

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