Angelica Huston’s second directorial effort, “Agnes Browne” is an intermittently enjoyable but extremely old-fashioned meller about the struggle of a young widow to support her large family. Set in a boisterous Dublin neighborhood in 1967, and toplined by a strong performance from Huston, this intimately scaled, heartfelt film will not be embraced by more cerebral critics, but it should play well with less discriminating audiences, particularly women, before landing comfortably on the small screen and in the video bin.
As she showed in her thematically audacious debut, “Bastard Out of Carolina,” Huston is good with actors but doesn’t bring a particularly strong or fresh vision to her material. Very much a women’s pic of the old school, “Agnes Browne” is too soft, and Huston’s direction lends it no discernible female perspective. Based on Brendan O’Carroll’s bestselling Irish novel “The Mammy,” the screenplay was co-written by the author and John Goldsmith.
The unexpected death of her husband throws Agnes Browne (Huston) and her seven children (six boys and a girl, ranging in age from 2 to 14) into emotional turmoil and financial crisis. To honor her husband with the funeral he deserves, Agnes is forced to borrow money from loan shark Mr. Billy (played by the splendid Brit thesp Ray Winstone), a ruthless man who refuses to make concessions for widows or children.
Agnes devotes herself to making ends meet and providing her brood a good education. The film’s best scenes takes place on the noisy and colorful Market Street, where she sells fruit and vegetables. In keeping with the conventions of such mellers, central theme concerns female bonding. Agnes’ close friend Marion (Marion O’Dwyer), a fellow vendor, encourages her to get out of the confines of her home and have some fun.
Agnes’ dream is to buy a ticket to an upcoming Tom Jones concert. Indeed, the film’s second half unfolds as a warmhearted, whimsical fable, Irish style, centering on how she realizes that fantasy. A French baker, Pierre (Arno Chevrier, who looks and sounds like the young Gerard Depardieu), shows romantic interest in Agnes, and, after some hesitation, she accepts his invitation for a date. Agnes’ loyal and appreciative kids pool their pennies and buy their mom a nice dress for the event.
There are some complications, as when Marion becomes seriously ill, or when one of Agnes’ boys takes a loan from Mr. Billy and is unable to meet its terms. But in this Christmas-like yarn, nearly all obstacles are resolved in time for the big concert.
Assaying a credible Irish accent, Huston, who spent much of her youth in Eire , gives a charming performance that holds the schmaltzy story together with her characteristic humor — and occasional edge. She gets wonderful support from Irish stage actress O’Dwyer, who makes an impressive screen debut here. Film suffers considerably when the femmes are not onscreen, which, fortunately, is not too often. Location shooting in Dublin enhances pic’s authentic look.