Boo hoo! Frank McCourt had a miserable childhood! Honestly, who can say their childhood wasn't impoverished in some way ... or in many ways? That Mr. McCourt survived and eventually published his inescapable memoir is nice, of course, and the book is indeed a poignant and crafty piece of work. Nonetheless, it seems a bit puzzling that this particular tale has become a runaway international bestseller, let alone a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
The language is direct and tactile but hardly poetic or unique. (McCourt's no Joyce.) The story itself is a string of maudlin anecdotes that most people wouldn't tolerate coming from the mouth of a friend or family member. And the subject matter -- well, it's a rather well-worn path, isn't it? Countless starving individuals have dreamt of crossing the Atlantic to America (where they could perhaps starve more cheaply before ultimately moving to Connecticut). In the subgenre of tough Irish boyhood, we already have superb autobiographical accounts from Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy) and Bob Geldof (Is That It?), both of which would make sensational modern movies. And films as disparate as Da and Jim Sheridan's profound The Field have hit the Irish-father-ache button squarely and firmly. So pardon me for entering into this review of Angela's Ashes wondering what all the fuss is about.
Director Alan Parker is a phenomenal storyteller with a gift for creating lasting cultural documents in the form of widely accessible films. From the grit of The Commitments to the soaring spirit of Evita to intense civil rights dramas Mississippi Burning and Come See the Paradise, he has consistently proven himself an artist of vision and verve. When one considers the impressive, abstract edge of his palette (Birdy, Angel Heart, directing Geldof in Pink Floyd: The Wall) and his grasp of America in both icon and stranger-than-fiction reality (Bugsy Malone and the brilliant, sadly underrated The Road to Wellville), he seems possessed of an infinite spectrum of expression. The challenge with Angela's Ashes, therefore, seems to have been how to translate this achingly popular bible of blues into moving pictures.
It's a shame that entertainment conglomerates aren't adventurous enough to bankroll, say, Angela's Ashes: The Musical on Ice!. But they're not, by and large, and what we have in Parker's new film is an earnest and reverent take on McCourt's book. It is beautifully directed, it is vividly realized (hats off to director of photography Michael Seresin), and it is utterly devoid of surprise. Even those not yet initiated into the faithful fold by way of book club or paperback rack may find this narrative familiar enough to breed ... not contempt or distress, exactly. Mild apathy? Then again, maybe this familiarity, this universality (the book boasts a popular Japanese Web site) is exactly the point. Perhaps Parker, under the ministrations of über producer Scott Rudin, simply has chosen to give the people what they (seem to) want. If that's the case, sure enough, he's succeeded at his task.
"We must have been the only Irish family saying goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, rather than hello to it," marvels Francis McCourt, in the voice of offscreen narrator Andrew Bennett. So much for Depression-era New York and the New World, as the McCourt family sails back to Cork and, soon enough, Limerick, to the dank and depressed hometown slum of Frank's Catholic mother, Angela (Emily Watson, whose ashes, for the record, remain animated throughout these proceedings). In Brooklyn, Angela met and married Malachy (Robert Carlyle), a no-account boozer with what McCourt describes as "a hangdog look," and they begat Frank (Joe Breen, first of three Franks), Malachy Jr., twins Eugene and Oliver, and a newly born, newly dead daughter. The main problems faced by Frank back in Eire: His father's a Protestant from Belfast -- quick with a song but quicker to drink up any tiny sums of money that come the McCourts' way -- and Angela's family despises him; it's cold and wet and the family is starving, which tends to make siblings die; and schoolmasters and priests are a lot less fun than watching Jimmy Cagney movies at the Lyric cinema. Other assorted agonies include fleas, flooding, and flogging.
Too much of this and Angela's Ashes would become total anti-entertainment (now there's a blurb for the ads), but Parker's wise and experienced grasp also wrings from McCourt's book much of its humor, even while, for most of the tale, all hope seems lost. Frank's dance lessons (this time portrayed by Ciaran Owens) -- and his management of the funds theretoward -- make for fine relatability. ("I want to be Fred Astaire," exclaims the boy. "Irish dancers look like they have steel rods up their arses.") In fact, it's when Parker, through McCourt, stops whining and bludgeoning us that the bird of childhood innocence sings most sweetly. (In his acknowledgments, McCourt himself sings "a small hymn to an exaltation of women" who attended his moaning as he turned it into a highly lucrative book. Blessed among men, indeed. For such laments, most men would be cast off as if they were covered with phlegm-spitting tarantulas.) There is also humanity to be found in the simple struggles of a Catholic boy entering adolescence, with a wank to the left and a confession to the right. These scenes are among the movie's liveliest and best.
Parker has already confronted the issues of the absent or neglectful father, pretty much de rigueur in contemporary cinema (or society, for that matter), in The Wall and Wellville, so Frank's hope and despair over Malachy Sr. is particularly well handled (if bombastically orchestrated; tone it down, guys!). Carlyle, who continues to push the envelope of his versatility, is ideal (if peculiarly Scottish, alas) as the Father Who Could Not Be; his performance is so spot-on that it's actually in his absence, later on when Frank is in his teens (Michael Legge), that his resonance and failure are most keenly felt. Legge, as the third Frank, delivers some of the film's toughest scenes, pummeling himself over his lust and guilt for Theresa Carmody (Kerry Condon), a lovely young lady on his telegram route who is stricken with consumption. As Frank edges into manhood and Angela keeps compromising herself to keep her family alive, the story comes full circle. Watson, to her credit, maintains Angela's balance as a woman who has every right to feel sorry for herself and collapse but doesn't. In response to her husband's amorous demands, she calmly responds: "As long as there are no more children, eternal damnation sounds just fine to me." When dignity is removed, there is nothing left but will.
Angela's Ashes is a sharp and pungent distillation of the book. However, as far as the theme of childhood under duress goes, I found My Life as a Dog or the stridently Irish Into the West significantly more fulfilling. Parker's adaptation wants not for guts or heart, but McCourt's passionate ramblings, so adored on the page, prove a bit unwieldy for the screen.
Opens Jan. 14.