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Film review: 'Angela's Ashes'

13 December 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

"Angela's Ashes" is a meticulous and sincere film version of Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir of his impoverished Irish childhood and adolescence. Director Alan Parker has scrupulously stuck to McCourt's story -- its people, sense of time and place -- but he, of course, has no way to reproduce the Irish-American writer's language and wit. Thus, the story, shorn of its writing, can't help veering sometimes into stereotypes and cliches.

McCourt's book, which won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, has generated a huge following throughout the world, so the film version will get off to a good start based on name recognition. The quality of this production and a cast headed by Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle should earn good reviews that will also help.

Paramount and Universal Pictures International could have the best of both worlds: a prestigious film that does well at the boxoffice. But what made McCourt's book great -- the sense of how memory filters experience -- is entirely missing from the film.

While two hours and 25 minutes of grinding poverty sounds like a tough sit, what transforms this memoir into something funny and uplifting is the triumph of the human spirit over abject deprivation and ignorance.

The story begins in 1935 Brooklyn and, as McCourt notes in the opening paragraph of his book, his parents should have stayed in the New World. Had they done so, much of the hardship and unhappiness that was to come would have been avoided. But after his infant sister dies, the grandmother (a stern Ronnie Masterson) sends enough money for passage back to Limerick, Ireland.

Two more boys are born and two more children die as the family struggles to exist in the wet and filthy Roden Lane slum. (One of the grand ironies of this production is that since this Limerick slum no longer exists, it was painstakingly re-created at considerable cost by production designer Geoffrey Kirkland.)

The dad, Malachy McCourt, charms his boys with wry stories and fatherly affection. But he is never able to support the family because of chronic alcoholism, which leads to chronic unemployment. Scottish actor Robert Carlyle plays the dad like one of the walking wounded, who sees what has to be done but has no way to achieve his goals. He maintains as much of his pride as he can but realizes how deadly accurate are the gibes tossed at him by his overburdened wife, Angela.

Emily Watson's Angela is a woman worn down by time and troubles. For the children's sake, she usually holds her tongue. But you sense the anger in her eyes. She always has an urgency about her, as if every lump of coal or morsel of food will make the difference between life and death -- which indeed it might.

Three young actors play the young protagonist: Joe Breen as young Frank and Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge as older Frank. The trio not only look reasonably alike, but under Parker's direction they give a seamless performance as the resilient youngster who manages to cope with dysfunctional adults and horrifying conditions.

Kirkland's terrific design makes you feel the dampness and smell the stench in that dark, depressing slum. There is hardly ever a "dry" shot in the movie, as rain pours constantly and the downstairs of the McCourt flat is nearly always flooded. Indeed, one joyous moment occurs when the boys tear down a bedroom wall to turn it into much-needed fuel.

The filmmakers probably erred by insisting on tracing McCourt's entire life up until his arrival back in New York at age 19. In making the hard choices of what to include and what to jettison, Parker and his fellow writer Laura Jones are forced to rush things.

Hopscotching through the years certainly keeps the story entertaining. But the viewer remains at a distance, never really developing an identification with the hero or his travails. This is a noble effort, but one that falters in its desperate need to cram in characters and incidents.

ANGELA'S ASHES

Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures International

A David Brown/Scott Rudin/Dirty Hands production

Producers: Scott Rudin, David Brown, Alan Parker

Director: Alan Parker

Screenwriters: Laura Jones and Alan Parker

Based on the book by: Frank McCourt

Executive producers: Adam Schroeder, Eric Steel

Director of photography: Michael Seresin

Production designer: Geoffrey Kirkland

Music: John Williams

Costume designer: Consolata Boyle

Editor: Gerry Hambling

Color/stereo

Cast:

Angela McCourt: Emily Watson

Malachy McCourt: Robert Carlyle

Young Frank: Joe Breen

Middle Frank: Ciaran Owens

Older Frank: Michael Legge

Grandma Sheehan: Ronnie Masterson

Aunt Aggie: Pauline McLynn

Narrator: Andrew Bennett

Running time -- 145 minutes

MPAA rating: R

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1 item from 1999


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