McCourt's best-selling memoirs of miserable Irish childhood brought vividly to life in 'Angela's Ashes'
Over instantly bleak and rainy establishing shots of the potholed cobblestone streets and muddy back alleys of a crumbling tenement row in 1930s Limerick, Ireland, "Angela's Ashes" opens with a quote from Frank McCourt, the author whose mega-best selling memoir is the basis of the film:
"When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how my brothers and 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."
Brother, he ain't kiddin'. In the first 20 minutes of the picture, three of young Frank's infant siblings have died, his irresponsible drunk of a father (Robert Carlyle) has squandered the family's dole money, his mom (Emily Watson) has gone begging to the St. Vincent DePaul for food, clothing and furniture, and the kids have stood outside the coal plant waiting for delivery trucks to go by so they can pick up spilled remnants of the black fuel to heat their crumbling, frequently flooded, two-room home -- which is located adjacent to the drain where the entire street dumps out their chamber pots.
Adapted and directed by Alan Parker ("Evita," "Mississippi Burning") this 20th Century Dickensian tale of perseverance and survival is in many ways -- despite of all the misery and squalor -- a fond remembrance of McCourt's childhood.
Peppered with a bleak, fearless sense of humor and a determined sense of pride, it brings McCourt's adolescence vividly to life from his dirty fingernails and shoes resoled with old bicycle tires to his solemn, switch-happy, Catholic schoolteachers to his mother's judgmental, parsimonious family and his father's on again-off again sense of duty that leads to broken promises and perpetual impoverishment.
Parker's direction is strong and inventive in subtle ways. He uses the same static camera shots throughout the film to establish the monotony of McCourt's tenement youth -- showing, for example, the boy bounding through a perpetual puddle in front his disintegrating row house over and over throughout the years.
He slips up here and there, accompanying young Frank's tribulations with an upbeat jazz soundtrack that seems out of place until very late in the film, and getting a little carried away with the symbolism at times (an eclipse added to the last act smacks of desperation for a big finale).
But the director's richly envisioned adaptation of McCourt's memories of the poor life in Ireland remains cogent, thanks in part to impeccable casting.
Carlyle plays the desperate father's two-sided personality with quite effective empathy, portraying both his heart-felt desire to provide for his brood and his feebleness in the face of adversity. The supremely talented Watson is unforgettable (although criminally under-used) as the boy's forever-sacrificing mother. And the three young actors who play Frank through the years are each astounding.
At age 8, first-time actor Joe Breen manifests the kid's tenacity in a brassy, defiant pout that takes Frank through his first communion and innocently expects all his father's promises to come true.
Thirteen-year-old Ciaran Owens ("The Butcher Boy") sees Frank through his early disillusionment as he takes a job shoveling coal to support the family after his father finally disappears for good. Owens also depicts Frank's battle with typhoid and his ironic joy at being hospitalized, which gives him his first warm bed, his first real bathroom and the bed-ridden opportunity to discover literature.
Michael Legge plays Frank in his late teens, as he learns the ups and downs of sex and drink -- which he finds brings out his father's abusiveness in him -- while working as a telegram boy and writing collection letters for the despised neighborhood lender.
"Angela's Ashes" may not resonate for moviegoers the way the book has for legions of loyal readers, but it is, nonetheless, a moving, passionate drama that echoes with McCourt's distinctive character and glimmers with obstinate hope while, thankfully, eschewing the cloying nature of it's Dickens-inspired ambiance.