Angela's Ashes

Director: Alan Parker
Screenplay: Laura Jones and Alan Parker (based on the book by Frank McCourt)
Stars: Emily Watson (Angela), Robert Carlyle (Malachy), Michael Legge (Teenage Frank),Ciaran Owens (Frank, Age 10), Joe Breen (Frank, Age 5), Ronnie Masterson (Grandma Sheehan), Pauline McLynn (Aunt Aggie), Andrew Bennett (Narrator)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1999
Country: USA

Alan Parker's film version of "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's wildly popular memoir of his impoverished childhood in Ireland, is a long, exhausting, almost completely humorless chronicle of misery, shame, and hardship. Because almost every scene involves rain or dampness, it's a particularly fitting comparison to describe watching the film like being dragged through the mud. After all, this is a film in which a newborn dies in the first five minutes, and, by the half-hour mark, two toddlers have died, as well. The only thing more prevalent in "Angela's Ashes" than death is the rain (I can recall only two scenes in the whole film that involve rays of sunlight).

Because I am one of the handful of Americans who has never read McCourt's book (I do have a copy of it on my shelf, though, along with dozens of other books that are begging to be read), I am particularly unsuited to compare the merits of the book to the merits of the film. However, it seems to me that there must be some kind of fundamental difference between the two because I cannot imagine that a book as monotonously depressing as this film could possibly be so popular. Just glancing across the quotes of "advance praise" on the back of the book jacket, I notice words like "triumphant," "humor," "hilarity," and "wit," all words that are peculiarly unsuited to describing the film. Perhaps that is where the difference lies.

The film of "Angela's Ashes" is certainly a first-rate production that is finely acted by all the principles. There are moments of cinematic poetry to be found here and there, but they are too scattered to make a lasting impact. If anything, this is a profoundly physical movie. With Geoffery Kirkland's grungy production design and ??'s ashen-hued cinematography, you can almost feel the grit under your fingernails and the dampness in your shoes.

The story takes place in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930s and '40s, a period of time in which the country was in turmoil over the very nature of its existence. The film follows its protagonist and narrator, Frank McCourt (played as a teenager by Michael Legge, as a 10-year-old by Ciaran Owens, and as a young child by Joe Breen), as he grows up over a 10-year period. Much of the film focuses on his family, especially his struggling mother, Angela (Emily Watson), and his shifty, unemployed, alcoholic father, Malachy (Robert Carlyle).

The McCourt family is in turmoil for any number of reasons, their abject poverty, of course, being the most obvious. The home they occupy for most of the film is so poorly constructed that the bottom floor floods, forcing the family to confine themselves to the second floor. Angela regularly finds herself begging for handouts from local charities that often cruelly mock her destitution, and at one point she tells Frank and his brothers to tear down an interior wall to fuel their fire. Food is always scarce, and whenever Malachy gets a steady job, he wastes the money on booze, comes home drunk, oversleeps, and is fired. It is a circle without end, and when he finally leaves the family for good, it is almost a relief because his family will no longer suffer the additional pain of relying on a man who always lets them down.

Although it is Angela's name that is invoked in the title, Malachy is actually the more fascinating character because he is such a hard man to pin down. He obviously loves his family, but, for whatever reason, he is incapable of providing for them. As Frank tells us in the voice-over narration, he actually sees his father as three different men: the loving, caring man who told them fantastic stories over breakfast in the morning; the determined, earnest man who spent all day searching in vain for work; and the lazy, drunken man who came home late at night with whiskey on his breath and no money in his pocket. It is in its evocation of this complex, untrustworthy man who is, nevertheless, deeply loved by his neglected children, that "Angela's Ashes" comes closest to arousing real emotion.

Part of the problem with the film may be that, in its overly earnest attempt to reproduce the squalid nature of the McCourt family's existence, it somehow turns everything into a cliché. Parker repeatedly uses the same shot over and over again of the rain-soaked, badly damaged cobblestone alley off which the McCourts live in an attempt to push home what is obvious already--they are poor. Parker doesn't allow the true nature of their poverty to emerge naturally from the film's various situations; instead, he has to keep pointing at it as if we haven't noticed already. The film also suffers from the necessity of using a voice-over narration by actor Andrew Bennett that is so dull in its delivery and removed in its effectiveness that it almost seems like a parody of itself.

Because Frank grew up in the staunchly Catholic southern half of Ireland, there is a great deal of emphasis on his relationship with the Catholic Church. What little humor the film offers is almost exclusively aimed at organized religion, such as when Frank's grandmother (Ronnie Masterson) bemoans that his hair sticks up, most likely because it's "Protestant hair" he inherited from his Northern Irish father; or the scene in which Frank and his buddies discover they can get away with the worst kind of sins and still confess them each week because they choose a priest who is 90 years old, mostly deaf, and always asleep in the confessional booth.

In these rare moments of humor, you can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you begin to realize what this film should have been like. No film can sustain this much misery and suffering without humor; it's what makes it bearable. Unfortunately, Parker decided against this route, and instead opted to make a film that is so serious in its depiction of human poverty that, despite an optimistic ending (after all, we enter the film with the knowledge that Frank ends up writing an American bestseller), it collapses from the weight of its own grim desolation.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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