Leaves you wanting more


Angela's Ashes (1999) Review 5
Director:Alan Parker,
Starring:Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Michael Legge, Ciaran Owens, Joseph Breen
Length:145 minutes


Frank McCourt narrates the opening to Angela’s Ashes, explaining that of course his childhood was a miserable one — it wouldn’t be worth telling, otherwise. Furthermore, his childhood wasn’t the ordinary miserable childhood, it was the Irish Catholic miserable childhood. The audience immediately comes to grasp the sense of his words in the opening shots, as the Statue of Liberty fades in the distance and the McCourt family returns to Ireland at the height of the Great Depression. But though America bore them no great fortune, their homeland is hardly better. The entire island is drenched in rain, fog, and damp weather; work is scarce; and living conditions for many families bear similarities to the Jewish ghettos of World War II depicted in Schindler’s List. In short, the memoirs of Frank McCourt are not of the feel-good variety. Angela’s Ashes, directed by Alan Parker (Evita), carries through on that theme, rendering a world of misfortune and poverty in splendid fashion.

Such a remark might seem to be a contradiction in terms. Audiences aren’t likely to be pleased by what they see before them, as the McCourt family struggles through one setback after another. The film’s story is an exercise in creating a depressing atmosphere and abhorring from any semblance of viewer-friendly material. High marks can be given to writer/director Parker and co-writer Laura Jones for so aptly transplanting the source material into a quality screenplay, but box office returns for the film will be as dismal as a rainy day in Ireland. Studies have repeatedly shown that American moviegoers do not like depressing movies, and Angela’s Ashes is not a film that endeavors to escape that confining qualifier.

Provided the viewer can stomach the unpleasing nature of the film, most will be pleased with what they see. Parker’s film contains a number of solid performances, the strongest of which is Michael Legge as the teenage Frank McCourt. Frank is also portrayed as a young boy by Joseph Breen, and then as an adolescent by Ciaran Owens; all three young men complement each other and make Frank McCourt a believable, developed character of depth and honesty. On hand for the supporting roles are Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) and Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), both of whom help to develop the personality of the young protagonist but turn in less credible performances. Watson, usually splendid, is a bit more static here as Angela McCourt; Carlyle casts a very likeable screen presence as Malachy McCourt, and it’s difficult to see him as an evil drunkard of a husband and father.

Malachy is the root of the McCourt family’s problems. Their return to Ireland and hopes of a better life are hindered by his proclivity toward drinking away the odd paycheck. But while Frank sympathizes with his father and never sees him as anything less than a kind man, he vows to escape impoverishment and make something for himself. The story is touching and the screenplay is well-written; Angela’s Ashes stands out from most adaptations in that at 140 minutes it does not feel long or tired.

Despite all of the heavy emoting, however, the film has a very bland feel. The set design, created exactingly to portray midcentury Ireland, is filled with subdued hues of brown, gray, black, and blue; the omnipresent fog and damp weather do not help to alleviate this obstacle. Parker does his best to get around it, attempting to thoroughly incorporate the setting into the film to develop a sense of atmosphere, but it’s a rather unnecessary effort. The audience is aware of the dampness. Similarly, writers Parker and Jones attempt to keep the story focused on Frank McCourt, but often enough subplots will arise that are then ill-disposed. And though, like a Shakespearean sonnet, the film’s climax comes late in the running time, the audience does not get to see the victory and vindication of Frank they want.

Strictly speaking, though, the film works. It’s a fine drama, with all the right parts and all the right players. Certainly recommendable for those who’ve read Angela’s Ashes, and even for those who have not, it’s still worth a shot.