Angela's Ashes (1999)

D: Alan Parker
S: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle

Beautifully crafted adaptation of Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir of an impoverished Irish Catholic childhood in 1930s Limerick which will please people who find the subject intrinsically interesting, but which will produce varying levels of hostility and/or boredom in others for its unrelenting and all-too-familiar obsession with the dark and distant history of an Ireland long dead. As the opening voice over warns, this is a film which thrives on misery. It lovingly depicts the ugliest side of old Limerick in the almost constant rain (also a feature of Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair, curiously), for the returned emigrant, mixed religion family; victims of religious prejudice, unemployment, alcoholism, familial claustrophobia, borderline starvation, and sexual extortion. Yet there is a paradox here. The events are viewed with the eye of the successful expatriate (or, in this case, double expatriate), and the film is framed, rather simplistically, by images of the Statue of Liberty which, despite some comic irony, ultimately gives the film the kind of redemptive framework which makes all that has preceded it too easy to dismiss as nostalgia. As a portrait of poverty, it has many (better) precedents, not least of all in the Italian neo-realist masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, and as a portrait of Ireland it has too many precedents to list, so much so that there may be a large number of people who just don't want (or need) to see it all again. The Irish release of the film has already been greeted with a combination of apathy and anger. Prominent Limerick-born Oscar nominee Richard Harris reacted contemptuously to what he saw as the defamation of his home by people who ultimately know very little about it. And after now several years of the McCourt family's seemingly endless round of publicity tours and spinoffs, some people have begun to wonder how much of this is a media manufactured wallow in half-invented remembrance.

Such considerations aside, Angela's Ashes is extremely well put together and confidently directed by Alan Parker. Having turned an expressionistic eye on Dublin city in his filming of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments, Parker and cinematographer Michael Seresin have done an excellent job of rendering the urban landscape of 1930s Limerick in a palette of dark greys, greens, and browns (assisted by Geoffrey Kirkland's production designs, Jennifer William's sets, and Consolata Boyle's costumes). Parker and co-writer Laura Jones have done a great job of extracting from the book scenes which advance the narrative quickly and with a good balance of humour and darkness despite its 145 minute running time. The casting by John and Ross Hubbard and Juliet Taylor is spot on. Though Emily Watson and Robert Caryle are both good in the adult starring roles, the casting directors have picked a cast of youngsters to play both Frank McCourt at his various ages (Joseph and Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge) and the many other teens and youngsters featured in the story which give it much of its energy. Editor Gerry Hambling also keeps things moving along nicely and John Williams adds an evocative orchestral underscore which while not instantly memorable, is intrinsic to the mood and tone of the film on the whole. On a technical level, this is a remarkable achievement.

Yet despite all of this craft, the story elements at the heart of the film are numbingly familiar, so much so that it is difficult to feel anything for the characters in spite of the horrors and hardships they undergo. It is a retread of the clichés of The Old Country knocked around since the silent era, and though at least purportedly based on fact, they are by now dull rather than quaint, irritating instead of camp, and certainly not effective in terms of getting the audience involved. Though Emily Watson (The Boxer, Hilary and Jackie) is superbly perturbed as the put-upon mother of the family and Robert Caryle (The Full Monty, The World is Not Enough) gives the one genuinely moving characterisation in the film, you feel distant from the people on screen in a way which makes them little more than props in Parker's arsenal of cinematic representation. They become elements of the physical environment, used as effectively as the rest is used, only without the kind of empathic, human content required to make this kind of film work. The rain-drenched streets, the propaganda in the classrooms, the joys of the local cinema, the deaths in the family, the parental strife, the nasty matriarch and the repressed auntie, the flashes of hope, the momentary naughtiness and the heady rush of hope in the quest to return to America: these are all individually well handled. But cumulatively there is just too much that we have seen before (not necessarily all in one film, but this stuff has done the rounds), and it feels contrived and constructed in a way which ultimately defeats much of what would seem to be the point of a 'true' story of redemption and overcoming adversity.

It is also arguable that tales such as this no longer need to be told, not because Ireland's economy and political character have changed, but because, on the contrary, tales of poverty and prejudice continue. Perhaps the emigrant story which currently most needs to be explored by Irish filmmakers and writers is that of the African and Eastern-European refugees now filling the streets and facing the beast of Irish racism. Maybe the tales of sexual misadventure highlighted by McCourt need to be contemporarised by a discussion of the recent arguments over the rights of women to control their bodies and their lives, and the revelations of sexual abuse by religious orders which have inevitably affected the attitudes towards morality. It is possible that, at the end of the day, Angela's Ashes is no more relevant to today's Ireland than it is to today's United States. This is a nostalgic film in the worst sense of the word. Though it deals in misery and poverty, it makes them distant and picturesque, a memoir by a man whose life now is evidently far from what it was then. Contemporary audiences can watch this film and, all too easily, allow themselves the comforts of knowing that "it's not like that anymore" and "I've come so far since then" in a way which invites them to ignore the problems which still affect the lives of people who can't write nostalgic memoirs about it.

This of course does not mean that the film is not well made or worth seeing. Angela's Ashes is a work of supreme craftsmanship. In general, there's no particular harm in deconstructing certain received images of the bucolic splendour of 1930s Ireland, though how much is deconstruction and how much is a reconstruction of a new set of myths is debatable. Thematically, the film is consistent and relatively successful in exploring various familiar chords of Irish life of the time. There are some good individual moments and the visuals tend to stick with you afterwards. Parker has dignified material which may well have sunk in lesser hands, and he has made a good movie out of a book whose audience will doubtless enjoy seeing it done on the big screen. There are certainly worse films out there (Waking Ned , The Nephew, and Gold in the Streets leap to mind). There are better ones, though, with fresher and more original takes on similar situations. It is ironic that this film's trailer taglines, describing it as "A family's hardship, a mother's struggle, and one boy's unbreakable spirit," could also be used to describe The Butcher Boy, where the idea of a child who cannot be repressed became a study of the dark unconscious of insanity. As to whether or not it is worth seeing, this depends entirely on your predisposition to McCourt's interpretation of his past. There are some for whom the evocation of time and place be effective. Others will see the whole thing as an offence to their own sense of history. It is a personal reaction, and the best recommendation any critic can give you is that you make up your own mind after viewing it. It is no masterpiece, it won't hold up to the standards set by films like The Butcher Boy and The General, and it is unlikely to take a prominent place in the history of Irish cinema, but it's beautifully done, well acted, and generally coherent, which is perhaps more than this story deserves in a world whose problems are far beyond those of the one which it portrays.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.