Angela’s Ashes

Angela’s Ashes has a beautiful ugly look. Rain soaks the dirty streets of Ireland, turning every public area (and even some interiors) into mud puddles. The film itself seems to have been bled dry by a vampire, and the pale, skinny people plod through the muck and drizzle like wraiths. When young Frank McCourt comes down with a nasty case of conjunctivitis, it’s the first sign of color in his face. All of this squalor is perfectly composed and lighted, as if the director Alan Parker were trying to find a visual equivalent to McCourt’s elegant prose.

The movie is bleak, depressing, and almost entirely grim — every time a character enjoys a small triumph, a big letdown is right on its heels. (This is the sort of film in which a man finally finds a job after months of searching, then celebrates at a pub and gets so drunk he oversleeps the next day and gets fired.) Angela’s Ashes doesn’t have a chance of scoring with a mass audience (despite the popularity of McCourt’s bestseller), but I thoroughly enjoyed it — enjoyed the relentless gloomy realism, the refusal to put a happy face on McCourt’s miserable childhood. The events of the story are saddening; the movie’s integrity in handling them without flinching or melodrama is satisfying, even refreshing.

Angela’s Ashes begins not in Limerick (where most of the film is set) but in Brooklyn, New York — a confusing and intriguing starting point for viewers who haven’t read the book: Isn’t this supposed to be an Irish story? The McCourt parents — Malachy (Robert Carlyle), a hapless drunk, and his long-suffering wife Angela (Emily Watson) — watch as their newborn baby girl dies. They already have four other children, including Frank, and they decide to move back to Ireland, because Malachy isn’t having any luck in America. He has no better luck in Limerick, mainly because he spends the family’s little money at the pub.

In the past, Alan Parker has directed with a sledgehammer (particularly in Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning) — skillfully wielded, true, but some of us get tired of being hammered. Working with less sensational material, though, Parker relaxes; he doesn’t have to push so hard. Angela’s Ashes is actually fairly similar to his best film (for me), 1982’s divorce drama Shoot the Moon, also about a pathetic husband and father trying to hold his family together in the face of his wife’s contempt; the movies could be bookend pieces — the dysfunctional family in America and Ireland. (The absent father was also a theme in his Pink Floyd – The Wall, though that was more Roger Waters’ conception.) Here, Parker’s work is naturalistic yet subtly stylized. You see the beauty in the Limerick slums because that’s what the young Frank sees; he has no choice.

Parker isn’t just a cold technician; he usually gets rich performances, and he guides Watson and Carlyle through specific portraits of misery, not just stereotypes of the Drunken Dad and Bitter Mom. The actors make you feel the hopelessness of their situation; they see no beauty in their surroundings. Parker has also deftly cast the young Frank with three impressive child actors (Joe Breen as the little Frank, Ciaran Owens as the adolescent Frank, Michael Legge as the teen Frank), even though they don’t much resemble each other. It’s as if the harsh life in Limerick had reshaped Frank’s features at each stage of development.

I suppose some admirers of the book may be disappointed: A book is a book and a film is a film. And it’s one thing to read about McCourt’s long list of childhood tragedies — it’s quite another to actually see the dying babies, the grotesque living conditions, the sheep’s head served for Christmas dinner. I sympathize with those who find the movie Angela’s Ashes too depressing, but on some level, perhaps, in removing much of Frank McCourt’s distancing lyricism, Parker has given us a more honest account. Should dying babies not be depressing?

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama

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