by Jason Morrison
Ireland must be the worst place in human history to be alive. After watching Angela's Ashes and, well, just about any other movie set in Ireland, I can understand why my ancestors got the heck out of there and came to Ohio.
The filth, for example. In Angela's Ashes, nearly everything is the same color-muckish gray. The streets are muckish gray, the buildings are muckish gray, the children are muckish gray, and so is everyone else. And people die by the truckloads. The main character, Frank McCourt, has more younger siblings die in the first fifteen minutes than I could keep count of. A friend of mine suggested I start this review with, "If you love watching children die, you'll love Angela's Ashes!"
This is Frank McCourt's story, adapted from his book. Frank lives with his parents Malachy (Robert Carlyle) and Angela (Emily Watson) and several brothers in New York. When their newborn daughter dies and the parents fall on hard times, relatives see to it that they get back to Ireland, where most of Angela's family still lives.
It's pretty apparent her family isn't enamored with Malachy. Grandma Sheehan (Ronnie Masterson) blames everything on Malachy's north Ireland roots, wishing Angela married a Limmerick man. A few more kids die (and a few more are born, oh joy) and we see Malachy's inability to keep a job and tendency to spend money getting drunk, coming home in the middle of the night singing songs about battles against the English.
Frank grows and survives with his brother Malachy Jr. The pair are jeered by their peers for not having decent shoes, pick coal from the street and, like children everywhere, run through the rain and splash in puddles like everything's right in the world. Frank eventually gets sick, but recovers. He's almost held back a grade, but his voracious reading while ill saves him that embarrassment.
Malachy ends up going to England to work in the factories, but doesn't send home the promised checks. Eventually he shows up, makes a mess of things, then leaves for good. Angela is forced into even more drastic methods of living, eventually taking up with an ill-tempered cousin to put a roof over her children's heads. Still, Frank grows up, and finds himself dreaming of going to America. He gets a job delivering telegrams to earn money, and eventually writes threatening letters for the local loan shark to save enough cash up.
You'd think with a title like Angela's Ashes, the end of the story would be about his mother's death. In fact, she's one of the few who doesn't keel over. I feel bad talking about this movie in such flippant terms, because it obviously has deep meaning for the author, but like many book adaptations, events are squeezed together and juxtaposed to make otherwise terrible events seem comical.
The film's most successful moments, actually, are those intended to be comical. That's something about the Irish you see in the movies-no matter how muckish gray their lives are, they're still quite witty, and the film's unspoken analysis of the Catholic church is brilliant comedy of the absurd.
Another strength is the performances, especially by the younger actors. Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge play Frank at different stages of his life with earnest authenticity. The other boys in the story are just as good. Carlyle gave his otherwise morally worthless character a charm that made him all the more infuriating. Through half the movie I wanted to scream at him-you're a decent guy, get a job and don't drink the money away, you jerk! Watson plays Angela well, though we really don't get to see any side of her other than different takes on abject suffering.
Some parts of the film are really great. Frank's relationship with a dying girl and his guilt over the sin he committed with her before she died work beautifully. But then there are some scenes that don't work, the main problem being the ludicrous escalation of filth and despair. It shouldn't be funny, but it is.
The pace isn't the problem, but Angela's Ashes just has too much to be as powerful as it tries to be. And though it's genuinely humorous and insightful in parts, a movie that tries to be really emotionally moving and fails feels a little hollow, no matter it's other strengths.
(Out of five)