When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
"Angela's Ashes" is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of Frank McCourt, who was born amid the squalor of Depression-era Brooklyn and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Covering the decade that saw his development from childhood to manhood, "Angela's Ashes" encapsulates the major events of McCourt's early years. And though director Alan Parker artfully conveys the harsh realities of McCourt's impoverished childhood with some bleak yet exquisite cinematography, the film's episodic narrative and shallow character development drains it of any emotional resonance and meaning.
We must be the only family in Irish history to say goodbye to the Statue of Liberty.
As in the McCourt's book, the story begins in Brooklyn, where Frank (Joe Breen) lives in a small tenement with his father (Robert Carlyle of "The World is Not Enough"), mother Angela (Emily Watson, seen recently in "Cradle Will Rock"), and younger siblings, Malachy and the twins Eugene and Oliver. Angela has just given birth to Mary Margaret, the family's first daughter, but within a few minutes of screen-time, the new addition to the family has passed on. The loss is devastating to Angela, whose depression hinders her ability to look after her children. Hoping for a better life back home, the entire family moves back to Ireland, despite the fact that conditions there are far worse than in the United States.
I'll get a job, I promise.
If you get a job, you lose it the third week because you drank all the wages and you miss the work.
I'll get by Angela... I'll change.
The dole is 19 shillings, and the rent is 6. That leaves 13 shillings to feed and clothe five people!
God is good, you know.
Good may be good for someone somewhere, but he hasn't been seen lately in the lanes of Limerick.
Angela... you go to hell for saying that.
Aren't I there already?
Once back in the old country, the family settles in Angela's hometown, Limerick, one of the most impoverished towns in Ireland. Despite some assistance from Angela's mother (Ronnie Masterson) and sister Aggie (Pauline McLynn), the family's wellbeing continues to sink to even greater depths. Frank's father is unable to find work due to his Northern background, and even when he is able to get on the dole, he ends up drinking it away at the local pub. Angela, unable to rely on her husband for a source of steady income, does whatever she can to feed and clothe her children, from picking up dropped coal on the streets of Limerick to placing herself at the mercy of local charities. Meanwhile, Frank and Malachy find themselves constantly ostracized at school for being 'Yanks'. Over the next two hours, the story follows the milestones of Frank's childhood, from his first communion to his confirmation at age ten (played by Ciaran Owens) to his adolescent years (played by Michael Legge) where he dreams of returning to America.
He was the Holy Trinity, was my dad, with three people in him. The one in the morning, with his tea and woodbines, telling us the stories. The one who tried so hard to find work, but never did. And the one who came home at night, with the smell of whiskey on him.
Not having read McCourt's book, it is difficult to judge whether the problems in the film are from the source material or the adapted screenplay by Laura Jones and Parker, who tried to condense the book into the confines of a two-hour film. Viewed as a whole, "Angela's Ashes" plays out like a self-aggrandizing melodrama that never amounts to anything other than presenting a laundry list of McCourt's activities while growing up. Even the characterizations of McCourt's famiy borders of cliché, with the archetypal characters of the ineffectual father who cares only for himself, the long-suffering mother, and the perceptive and resourceful child who is wiser than many of the adults in the story.
Furthermore, within the first fifteen minutes, the film's narrative structure falls into a predictable pattern where personal triumphs of Frank and his family are quickly sabotaged by some misfortune, usually one of the numerous deaths that occurs throughout the film. Just as it seems that Frank is about make a meaningful change in his life, the story quickly dispels the illusions of hope and growth with yet another tragedy, which becomes quite frustrating by the middle of the film's second hour.
And in the end, it is difficult to discern whether or not Frank has really truly matured, since most of his key accomplishments are the result of pure luck as opposed to being the product of dogged determination. In essence, Frank ends up achieving his goals by being an opportunist. I cannot help but be reminded of a similar film from two years ago that had the same problem, the remake of "Great Expectations". In that film, the protagonist Finn never actually struggles to achieve anything-- instead, he winds up taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to him. Interestingly enough, the focus of "Great Expectations" should have been on Gwyneth Paltrow's character Estrella, as she was the one that had matured by the film's end. Had the focus of "Great Expectations" had been on Estrella, it might have been a better film. Likewise, perhaps "Angela's Ashes" focuses on the wrong character-- instead of homing in on Frank's achievements (or rather, lack of them), the film should have focused on the titular character Angela, and her struggle and the compromises she made to raise her children the best she could.
Narrative issues aside and viewed purely as an episodic account of McCourt's formative years, there is enough material to sustain one's interest for the two-and-a-half hours. Fortunately, "Angela's Ashes" is not all 'woe is me' doom-and-gloom. McCourt's satiric wit is well illustrated with a number of sequences that illustrate the farcical situations that arose during his Irish Catholic upbringing, from choking on the 'body of Christ' during his first communion to the film's standout sequence where he presents an essay entitled 'Jesus and the Weather'.
Parker brings his eye for cinematography (last seen in his "Evita") to convey the bleak atmosphere in the slums of Ireland. The sun rarely shines in this visualization of Limerick, and when it does, the brilliance is often muted by the constant pall hanging over its flooded streets. Production designer Geoffrey Kirkland has excelled in recreating a world that very few of us would like to be a part of, with its dark and dingy buildings, running sewage, and dirt-covered faces that only divulge despair.
Though all the performances are strong in this film (particularly the three actors who play Frank at three different ages), the single standout performance would have to go to Watson. Her portrayal of Angela is both convincing and moving, playing a character whose unending humiliation and feelings of bitterness towards her husband are counterpointed by the seemingly boundless love and dedication she shows towards her children. It is a subdued and powerful performance that she delivers, and it is unfortunate that her character could not have been a more focal part of the story.
Nothing could be further from the truth than calling "Angela's Ashes" a feel-good film. It is a grim and torturous epic where triumph is fleeting and happiness seems unattainable. Though a number of the anecdotes vacillate between interesting and amusing, "Angela's Ashes" never builds up to a satisfactory thematic epiphany or emotional peak. Fans of Frank McCourt and his books might find this cinematic adaptation of interest, but for those who have not read "Angela's Ashes" or have no interest, they will probably wonder what the fuss is all about.