Angela's Ashes (R)
It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
So begins Frank McCourt's much celebrated memoir, Angela's Ashes. Dark with the details of dire poverty, first in a 1930s Brooklyn tenement, then in Limerick -- hunger, malnutrition, infant death, alcoholism, shame and despair crowd the pages -- it's not an easy read, but several obvious characteristics explain its tremendous popularity. Foremost is McCourt's autobiographical voice -- the blunt and direct, almost defiant voice of a child, tinged with Irish lyricism and mordant humor. And the memoir is written in the present tense, drawing the reader into each gruesome scene with an immediacy that keeps you there. Angela's Ashes, the book, turns out to be a graphic peepshow into the circumstances of dire poverty, subject matter that simultaneously repels and fascinates, and McCourt unflinchingly takes the reader on a long ride through the sewer with the promise of emerging unscathed. After all, he lived to tell the tale, and before reading the book, we all knew that his was the classic American success story, rags to riches.
That the film is so nearly intolerable is a shame, mainly for the considerable waste of resources involved. Director Alan Parker, whose film credits include one of the most charming films ever set in Ireland, The Commitments, clearly reveres McCourt's memoir, and to write the script, he chose Laura Jones, whose Angel at My Table was one of the better screen autobiographies, adapted from a book, in recent memory. But Angela's Ashes, the film, is a dour excursion from start to finish, with little of the humor or unique perspective of McCourt's memoir.
How many times do we need to see a member of the McCourt family vomit graphically, to understand their sour stomachs or the stench of their living quarters? Based on the scenes the filmmakers chose to dramatize, apparently we need at least six -- here's Angela (Emily Watson) throwing up when her baby daugher dies; here's Malachy (Robert Carlyle) stumbling drunkenly outside a pub and spewing on the curb; here's young Frank (Michael Legge) hurling every night on the cobblestone lane where he tosses the contents of his fat cousin's chamber pot.
We are also treated to several renditions of the spilled, kicked over piss pot, urine splattering the walls, stairs and floorboards The point, of course, is that poverty stinks and is humiliating. We get it, already.
The child actors who play Frank at three different stages (Joe Breen as Young Frank, Ciaran Owens as Middle Frank and Legge as Older Frank) are all fetching, and the film actually picks up in spots where we are allowed entre into their perverse little heads. But the scenes with Emily Watson are less satisfying. McCourt's depiction of the haggard, beaten-down Angela are among the book's most moving, but Watson, who is great at playing eccentrics, feels too flimsy to carry the weight of the character. When we watch her sit next to the fire, smoking a cigarette, while her children lie in bed hungry, we don't get a sense of her desperation. She simply looks bored.
The best moments of the movie are those that depict the feverish Catholicism of the school and the parish cathedral. When his classmates taunt young Frank for his shabby shoes, the schoolmaster launches into an insane tirade: "Our Lord died shoeless! He hung on the cross with no shoes!" he shrieks, snapping his ruler across the knuckles of bored, dirty-faced boys. And Frank's moments in the confessional are priceless.
But overall, Angela's Ashes is grueling to sit through. In spite of the exquisite filming, the gray-green tinge of the stony sets, the dark, glistening rain, the mighty Shannon River creeping by and infecting everyone with the "damp," the tone and flavor of McCourt's memoir are buried in the squalor. People who loved the book will be disappointed; people who didn't read it will simply wonder why the movie was ever made in the first place.