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Based on the best selling autobiography by Irish expat Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes follows the experiences of young Frankie and his family as they try against all odds to escape the poverty endemic in the slums of pre-war Limerick. The film opens with the family in Brooklyn, but following the death of one of Frankie's siblings, they return home, only to find the situation there even worse. Prejudice against Frankie's Northern Irish father makes his search for employment in the Republic difficult despite his having fought for the IRA, and when he does find money, he spends the money on drink. Written by
In the very opening scene of Alan Parker's `Angela's Ashes,' we are informed by the narrator and main character, Frankie McCourt, in a phrase that turns out to be a masterpiece of understatement, that he had a `miserable childhood' but just how miserable we may not be quite adequately prepared to see. Based on the author's Pulitzer Prize winning autobiographical memoir, this compelling film plunges us directly into the wretchedness and squalor of life in Depression-ridden Ireland, a setting overflowing with disease, starvation, joblessness and despair. Indeed, by the time the film has hit the 25-minute mark, we have already witnessed the deaths of no fewer than three of Frankie's little siblings. The film, like the novel on which it is based, never flinches from portraying the brutal reality of the life the people of this dreary town must endure.
Yet, the film is also, at times, rich in humor and a sense of that unquenchable optimism that somehow exists in even the most hopeless of circumstances. Frankie, despite the harsh conditions of his life, remains a boy focused on the good things that come his way, enduring even a loving but utterly irresponsible ne'er-do-well father (beautifully played by `The Full Monty's Robert Carlyle) with an indulgence and tolerance borne of filial devotion. As Frankie grows from young boy, dutifully fulfilling the parental role for his younger brothers, to a man verging on the edge of adulthood, he feeds on his dreams of moving to America to start a new life full of hope and promise. The people and situations he encounters on this road create a stunning tapestry of life, teeming with bitterness and coldness it is true, but also with occasional, albeit momentary, displays of warmth, kindness and compassion whether they be from a seemingly bitter aunt who, much to his astonishment, buys Frankie a brand new set of clothes in which to start his new job, a teacher who inspires him to see life beyond the circumscribed limits of this dreary Irish town or a compassionate priest who counsels Frankie in a moment of dark despair. These help to counterbalance the deadening effects of his father's thoughtlessness and drunkenness, the death of his first love by consumption, the often brutal treatment he receives at the hands of both his teachers and fellow classmates. And all the while there stands his mother, the anchor that holds him firmly in place, a woman beaten down by poverty, the untimely deaths of her children, the fecklessness of her otherwise loving husband - yet a woman so full of the quality of stoic self-sacrifice that it is from she that Frankie draws the strength he needs to move on in his life.
Emily Watson provides a luminous portrait of this woman, triumphantly conveying the longsuffering reserve that helps shield her from the ugliness and dreariness of her life and provides her with the strength to carry on and build into her children a sense of moral rectitude. And the three boys who portray Frankie at various stages of the drama are utterly perfect in their wide-eyed naturalism, as they look upon a world often incomprehensible in its drabness and cruelty.
It seems to be becoming a truism lately that, if you want to see the bleakest portrayal of life imaginable, go to see a film set in Ireland. Nowhere does the sun shine less frequently, nowhere do the drab colors of gray and brown so heavily predominate, nowhere does poverty seem so all encompassing and inescapable. The Ireland of `Angela's Ashes' is surely no exception. The filmmakers, moreover, cast a scathing eye on the mindless superstition, bigotry and hypocrisy to be found in much of the blindly pro-Southern Ireland, anti-Protestant, anti-British, anti-Northern Ireland attitude perpetuated by the Catholic Church there in the 1930's. Thus, in the depths of McCourt's autobiographical story, lies a diatribe with its roots planted deep in political and social protest. Yet, because of our fascination with the boy at the center of the narrative, these qualities filter through subtly, never dominating the proceedings. `Angela's Ashes' is rather, from beginning to end, a moving story about goodhearted, ordinary people learning to cope with the immense hardships life throws their way. In the long run, it certainly makes one happier with one's own lot in life. `Angela's Ashes,' for those who can take its uncompromising view of reality, is a richly rewarding experience.
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