Agnes Browne (1999)

D: Angelica Huston
S: Angelica Huston, Marion O'Dwyer

Dublin in the early 1960s: a recently widowed street trader (Angelica Huston) faces the challenges of life as a lone parent, including dealings with a local loan shark (Ray Winstone) and the amorous advances of a Frenchman (Arno Chevrier), but finds solace in her friendship with a fellow trader (Marion O'Dwyer). Despite an earnest attempt by Angelica Huston as both actor and director, this adaptation of stand-up comedian Brendan O'Carroll's first novel The Mammy cannot overcome the rash of clichés and the constant feeling that this is a low-rent version of the kind of vision of working class Dublin popularised by admittedly more middle class writer Roddy Doyle. Added to this the fact that it lacks the humour which made Doyle so entertaining and made his insights seem less pat, it eventually becomes almost unbearable, especially when it descends into melodrama and fantasy.

The problems become evident in its first moments when a potentially funny scene is overplayed by the three actors concerned. Huston and O'Dwyer visit the social welfare office to obtain a widow's pension mere hours after the death of Huston's husband. The lines are delivered with heavy-handed, eye-rolling attempts at whimsy and satire which sets an unfortunate precedent for the remainder of the film. Huston herself tries hard, but she is far too beautiful and glamourous to carry the role. Vocally, while her pronunciations are fairly good, her intonation is off. The result is that, like the film of the whole, her performance is awkward, contrived, and ultimately fatally artificial. It is unauthentic in a way which becomes increasingly telling as the plot wends its way towards tearjerker territory before lurching inelegantly into knockabout humour in its final minutes.

As director, Huston attempts to turn the whole thing into a story of female liberation and self-discovery, and does so, but the plot, characterisation, and dialogue are far too obvious to be effective. As an evocation of time and place it does a serviceable job. It represents an urban social landscape now more or less departed, which is curious given that the adaptations of Doyle's films had brought matters fairly up to date. The sense of religion and community solidarity which eventually becomes central to the film's themes of feminist self-realisation frequently aims for an Ealing-ish feel (as did the recent, awful Waking Ned), but actually winds up providing it with a laughable climax which is funny for all the wrong reasons (and features an embarrassing cameo by Tom Jones). Amid this 'local colour' Huston attempts to wring from O'Carroll's basic story something slightly worthwhile in terms of a vision of Irish femininity more in line with standard feminist rhetoric. She succeeds in places, and manages to give a sense of how her character retains her dignity in the face of economic, social, and personal difficulties. But it's all very trite, and the film's resolution eventually turns on a series of moronic 'comic' twists and unlikely contrivances which undermine much of what Huston has been trying to do.

Agnes Browne may play in foreign markets, but to an Irish viewer it must be approached with the proverbial grain of salt. It is not a funny film, so don't expect many laughs, in spite of O'Carroll's reputation for profane, working-class comedy (incidentally he plays the local drunk). It might work as something of a distant echo of time and place for those who remember them, and as a tearjerking melodrama it might play with undiscerning video or television audiences. On the whole however Agnes Browne is a brave failure which was an unfortunate choice of second film for director Huston (following the controversial Bastard Out of Carolina, made for American cable TV). It's a pity that a woman raised at least partly in this country and with such evident talent could not make something out of the source material, but it just goes to prove that you can't make a silk purse out of a cow's ear. Let's hope people have the good sense to leave O'Carroll's subsequent novels to themselves and instead find new and interesting subjects to tackle as films like How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, November Afternoon, and Divorcing Jack have done.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.