Like a stone skipping across the surface of the book, Alan Parker’s film version of “Angela’s Ashes” artfully evokes the physical realities of Irish poverty, but mostly misses the humor, lyricism and emotional charge of Frank McCourt’s magical and magnificent memoir. Apparent effort to capture as many of the book’s key dramatic moments as possible results in a lengthy succession of short scenes, a structure that sacrifices depth as well as extensive thespian exploration by the talented cast. The rare and delicate nature of the phenomenal bestseller stacked the cards against any film adaptation from the outset, and while there will be plenty of readers eager to see how the task was attempted, pic faces an uphill commercial struggle even with strong reviews, though critics’ reactions are more likely to be mixed. Following potent openings in urban situations, long-range B.O. fate looks just fair.
Film’s failure to measure up to the book, a relevant issue in this case given its massive readership, is evident from the opening moments, in which an adult narrator exclaims, “When I look back on my childhood …”
Not only should the narration have been used to set the grim proceedings in a ruefully humorous context (much as the commentary in “Barry Lyndon,” for example, provided a mordant counterpoint to the solemn pageant of events), but using an older man to deliver it completely robs the tale of the component that most distinguished it on the page: its exact expression of the writer’s worldview, subtly shifting according to his age.
The book’s entire opening section, detailing the McCourts’ miserable lives in Brooklyn during the Depression, is disposed of in a quick five minutes, just long enough to establish the unemployability of alcoholic Dad (Robert Carlyle), the inability of his perennially pregnant wife, Angela (Emily Watson), to cope, and the comparatively upbeat resourcefulness of 5-year-old Frank (Joe Breen) and his younger brother Malachy.
Brood also includes young twins Eugene and Oliver. When baby Margaret dies, Angela hits the wall, and arrangements are quickly made to get them back from where they came, making them about the only family to emigrate back to Ireland from the U.S. in the ’30s.
There was good reason for this rarity, since Ireland was in even more desperate shape at the time than was anywhere else in the Western world. After a brief and futile stop in Dublin, the penniless family proceeds to Limerick, Angela’s hometown and, it so happens, the poverty capital of Ireland.
Local prejudices announce themselves at once: The kids are considered dirty Yanks by the natives, and not only is Dad shunned by Angela’s relatives because he’s a Protestant, but he’s all but disqualified for work the moment he opens his mouth and reveals his northern accent.
It hardly seems possible, but the family fares far worse in Limerick than it ever did in New York. Due to malnutrition and squalid living conditions, with open sewage running just outside the family’s door, the twins die in quick succession.
Any meager sum Dad earns at odd jobs is instantly spent in pubs, and Angela can rely only on charity to keep the family at subsistence level. The poverty is truly abject, a sense of hope nonexistent, and the leavening that young Frank’s humorous outlook provided in the book is seldom evident, making the tale considerably grimmer onscreen than it was on the page.
At the 50-minute mark, action jumps ahead to find the 10-year-old Frank (Ciaran Owens) being felled by typhoid but also having his literary ability recognized for the first time, thanks to a whimsical essay called “Jesus and the Weather,” which is taken straight from the book and is easily the most entertaining thing in the picture.
Dad leaves to work in wartime England while Frank gets a job delivering coal, which leads to a dreadful case of conjunctivitis. When it appears that Dad is gone for good, Angela is forced to compromise herself egregiously, just to keep a roof over the family’s head, provoking a rift with Frank (played as an adolescent by Michael Legge) and his realization, by the time he turns 16, that he’s got to return to New York at all costs.
Because of Frank’s determination and optimism, the tone turns less dire and more engaging in the latter going, which is sparked by a poignant interlude with a dying girl anxious for romance before she expires and a stint writing threatening letters for a stingy moneylender that Frank neatly turns to his advantage.
But even the climactic upswing can’t change the fact that the inevitable structural streamlining implemented by screenwriters Laura Jones and Parker has turned a singular work into something resembling a conventional tale of a gifted young man’s struggle to lift himself out of oppressive circumstances.
Despite pic’s ample duration, there never seems to be enough time for scenes to play out long enough for the actors to get under the viewer’s skin with fully fleshed-out characterizations.
Watson and Carlyle take their leading roles as far as they can — the former meeting the challenge of expressing unrelenting pain, suffering and humiliation, the latter getting across why his children like him and remember him fondly despite his utter failure as a provider.
Aside from Frank, the other kids are mere ciphers, and the feelings one expects to be generated by a tale of such distress and hardship are never summoned up in strong, sustained fashion.
Where the film unquestionably succeeds is in making manifest the world of crushing poverty, petty prejudices and death. It would seem to be against everything Parker stands for to photograph anything in an unattractive way, but the picture gives a strong sense of a place physically defined by heavy gray skies, acrid smoke and water dripping, pouring and flooding everywhere.
To this end, production designer Geoffrey Kirkland’s creation of a lower-class neighborhood is a triumph of realistic reproduction, an achievement perfectly complemented by Consolata Boyle’s aptly sad and mangy costume design and Michael Seresin’s muted color lensing. John Williams’ score is at pains to avoid Irish music cliches, but doesn’t serve up much in the way of pleasing alternatives.