I haven’t really been able to figure about what it is about Angela’s Ashes that left me so cold. It’s certainly a handsome production, and well acted — in fact, it’s got “production values” coming out the wazoo. Costumes, music, locations and sets, lighting, cinematography — all demand for Oscar to stand up and pay attention. And maybe that’s part of the problem: maybe too much attention was paid to detail and to getting everything to look and sound just so. Perhaps in the construction of Angela’s Ashes: Academy Award Winning Movie, any genuine feeling that might have been there in the beginning got lost along the way.
The problem begins, I think, right away, with the use of a narrator (Andrew Bennett), the adult Frank McCourt who would write Angela’s Ashes, the bestselling memoir of his “miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Though he has a lovely soothing voice — and Oscar does love an accent — his commentary adds nothing to a story we can see quite plainly before us. The use of the narrator is an attempt, probably, to convey the lyricism of McCourt’s writing, but it’s more a distraction than anything else.
The McCourts were probably the only Irish family in history ever to say good-bye to the Statue of Liberty — and we don’t need the narrator to point out the irony to us, though he does. They were living in a dump of tenement in Brooklyn during the height of the Great Depression when Angela (Emily Watson: Cradle Will Rock) gave birth to a daughter, after four boys. But the baby’s death a few days later sent both Angela and her husband, Malachy (Robert Carlyle: Ravenous,The Full Monty), into a despair that they will never really recover from, and when her sisters find the family foundering, they arrange to send them back to Limerick, Angela’s hometown.
If Brooklyn was a dump, the slums of Limerick are practically medieval. Grimy, gray, damp, and wretched, this is a world of narrow cobblestone lanes jammed with families with too many children, where people are still emptying chamberpots into the street, where barnyard animals share living spaces and everything leaks with a rain that never seems to let up. Clothes are worn and ragged, and children go to school in shoes that are flopping apart… if they’re lucky enough to have shoes at all.
This world is presented, though, by director Alan Parker, with such precise attention to the misery that it constantly reminds you that this is fake, this is only a movie, however real it might once have been. The grim black-and-white photo of actor Joe Breen, who portrays Frank at 5 years old, that serves as the movie’s poster is what Angela’s Ashes should feel like: hard, uncompromising, and unforgiving. Instead, the film has a kind of artificial meanness, like you can feel the Winnebagoes and catering trucks waiting for the rag-clad actors right off the edge of the frame.
The cast is uniformly terrific, though, from Emily Watson’s weary young/old face to Ronnie Masterson as her hard-edged mother. Robert Carlyle doesn’t have a lot to work with — his Malachy is good for nothing beyond drinking away the dole or a rare paycheck and keeping his wife constantly pregnant, and the script gives us little insight into his character — but Carlyle obviously has a strong sense of Malachy because he feels real nevertheless. The three young actors who play Frank — Breen, Ciaran Owens as Frank at 10, and Michael Legge as Frank at 15 — are each a wonder, showing wisdom beyond their years as Frank is forced to grow up fast, particularly when his father’s extended absence leaves him, as the eldest child, the man of the house.
But even the anguish of Frank’s “miserable childhood” feels manufactured. The film gets some bitter humor out of the death grip the Catholic Church held on Ireland — “Will ya tell Jaysus that we’re hungry,” Frank’s little brother implores him when they overhear their mother telling another child to pray to Jesus when he needs something. And it has comments obliquely on the stifling faith that commands women to have lots of children and then slams the door in their faces when they need help supporting or educating a litter of kids. But it offers us little understanding of how the people affected by these dictates — namely, the McCourts themselves — feel about them.
Much is made, too, of the fact that Malachy is from the North — the sour faces and narrowed eyes of Angela’s kin would be testament enough of the disdain in which they hold her husband, but there’s lots of harping on how his roots are the cause of all the McCourts problems, from unemployment to Frankie’s cowlick. Yet it’s quite an accomplishment for a film to take a real prejudice — this kind of bigotry still holds true today in Ireland — and make it feel like a cheap and obvious plot point.
I really wanted to like Angela’s Ashes — the book on which it is based was wonderful, and it has all the makings of what should be a truly transcendent film. Instead, I left the theater feeling a little bit jerked around and a lot disappointed.