Angela's Ashes (1999)




(director: Alan Parker; screenwriters: from the novel of Frank McCourt/Laura Jones; cinematography: Michael Seresin; editor: Gerry Hambling; cast: Emily Watson (Angela), Robert Carlyle (Dad), Joe Breen (Young Frank), Ciaran Owens (Middle Frank), Michael Legge (Older Frank), Shane Murray Corcoran (Young Malachy), Ronnie Masterson (Grandma Sheehan), Eanna MacLiam (Uncle Pat), Pauline McLynn (Aunt Aggie), Andrew Bennett (Narrator); Runtime: 145; Paramount Pictures; 1999)


“It suffers from the old problem of trying to portray misery without the film escaping from being miserable itself.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Angela’s Ashesfollows the McCourt family from Brooklyn, where they can’t fit in, back to Limerick, Ireland, where they can’t fit in. The impoverished Irish family has gone in the reverse direction of most immigrants. Angela, played with some stoic reserve by Emily Watson, comes from a family that has no use for her husband Malachy (Robert Carlyle), who is from Northern Ireland and is Protestant. He has an underwritten part as a hopeless alcoholic, playing someone who can’t get work but endears himself to the family by telling them stories. He’s treated like a foreigner in Limerick. The trouble with Carlyle’s part (not his performance) was that it had no punch to it, he couldn’t make it an interesting role in the short time he was on the screen. The stories he told about the English bringing fleas and the damp to Ireland, didn’t evoke the comedy or sympathy for him that it should have. He just came off as a deadbeat, someone who cared more about himself than anything else.

The whole point of the film will be a long and trying study in misery and poverty, as the family will undergo a series of hardships including the loss of three young children. The film never gets untracked from its maudlin attitude. It suffers from the old problem of trying to portray misery without the film escaping from being miserable itself. The other problem is that the misery seemed unreal, everything about it seemed so uninvolving and pristine. The film was flat. Its characters seemed too sanitary for their circumstances, and the family’s plight never seemed to be more than what their outside environment was. It seemed to be always raining, the apartment was covered with fading wallpaper, and the streets were cramped. It was hard to care about what was happening to them, except the obvious reaction one gets when seeing a poor household. Their endless plight seemed no different from the beginning of the film to the end. I have no idea what I was supposed to get from seeing them being deprived of comfortable housing, not having enough food to eat, wearing torn clothes, not having a dependable father, having a Christian Brother slam the church door in Frank’s face, the father putting a beer mug on his young son’s coffin, a government and a church indifferent to the McCourt’s poverty, and for the family not having proper indoor plumbing — except to say, that’s too bad. It was the filmmaker’s job, Alan Parker, along with the screenwriter, Laura Jones, to make me want to care but, instead, they made me feel too distant to honestly feel anything.

“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” writes Frank McCourt in his account of his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in the ’30s and ’40s. And if misery per se were an interesting topic, this adaptation of Frank McCourt’s book might be too. To make matters even worse this is an excruciatingly long film, over two and a half hour running time. This almost solemn film portrayal of childhood poverty comes with an Irish brogue voiceover throughout its entirety, explaining every little piece of misery as if were a sublime work of art.

Young Frank (played successively by Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge) is featured from his first confession (the best comic scenes to come out of the film) to the first shilling he earns to support his family to his first affair. The film has a bored look about it, indicating nothing much is going to happen except for a string of gross events and that Frank as a survivor will somehow come through all this misery.

It almost seems to be a shame not to connect with the family’s plight, but as well-intentioned as this film was and as good as the Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography was supposed to be (I didn’t read it) it was, nevertheless, made into a conventional film. Most biographies do not make for good dramatics in films, anyway, as they seem better suited for the printed page. This one is no exception.