Neeson, Watson in talks for ‘Ashes’

Helmer Parker eyes Sept. start for Par-PFE collaboration

NEW YORK — Liam Neeson and Emily Watson are in serious talks to star in “Angela’s Ashes,” the Paramount/Polygram adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirs, sources said.

Director Alan Parker is targeting a September start for the film, which was scripted by Laura Jones and is being produced by Scott Rudin and David Brown.

Neeson was last seen onscreen as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” and toplines next summer’s release of the first “Star Wars” prequel.

While the strapping Irishman fit the statuesque hero roles of those two films as well as his turns as Oskar Schindler and Michael Collins, his role in “Angela’s Ashes” would hardly be heroic, although perhaps more challenging. He would play Malachy McCourt, a charming man who loved his family but, unfortunately, loved to drink even more. He rarely worked and drank up most of his wages when he did, leaving his family to be raised dirt poor in the slums of Limerick.

Despite his shortcomings, he was a gifted storyteller, fondly remembered by his son Frank even though the family’s dire straits led to several siblings dying of neglect and led their despairing mother Angela to awful sacrifices to keep a roof over her family’s head.

If talks can be finalized, the role of Angela McCourt will be played by Watson, who had an Oscar-nominated starmaking turn in the 1996 film “Breaking the Waves” and who last starred alongside Daniel Day Lewis in “The Boxer.”

Numerous actors of Irish descent lined up to play the two key roles in a film which has gone from humble origins to become quite an event picture. Just when it was beginning to create a buzz in the literary community, “Angela’s Ashes” was optioned by producers Rudin and Brown, who used their own money so they could better control the direction of McCourt’s poignant story.

They commissioned a script from Jones, a specialist in adapting Pulitzer prose, as her credits include scripting the Pulitzer Prize-winners “A Thousand Acres” by Jane Smiley and “The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx. By the time the script was finished, McCourt had won his Pulitzer and his book had become a runaway bestseller, suddenly a hot movie property.

Parker, who showed a kinship for the working class Irish with his film “The Commitments,” came aboard several months ago.