Movie Mangles McCourt's Memoir

Angela's Ashes

Readers of Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, Angela's Ashes, may have wondered from whence the title of the book came. Upon seeing the film, it becomes clear that the title refers to the ashes that grow on the end of the cigarettes that Angela, McCourt's mother, smokes continuously as she worries her way through poverty, saddled with several children and an alcoholic husband who can't seem to hold on to a job.

But any attempt on the part of viewers to speculate on the deeper meanings of these ashes and what they signify would be pointless in this weak cinematic adaptation of the book. What works for the book--different incidents from McCourt's childhood that connect to create a rich, moving mosaic of his life growing up in Ireland--fails miserably on-screen. Episodic and unsatisfyingly static, the film is bound to disappoint fans of McCourt's memoir.

The film opens with a scene of squalor in the McCourt household in 1935. Angela has just given birth to her first daughter, adding to her family of four sons. Shortly afterward, the daughter dies. Unfortunately the viewer doesn't have time to care whether the infant lives or dies, thus revealing the first of many flaws in the film: in adapting the book to film, the filmmakers tried to cram as much of the book as possible into a two-hour movie, and this simply doesn't work.

The director, Alan Parker, worked with Laura Jones to write the screenplay, and the film is very faithful to the book--too faithful, perhaps. Like a complex organ hymn being plinked out on an electric keyboard, the film plays the same basic melody as the memoir but fails to bring out the nuances of McCourt's writing, while these nuances are precisely what made Angela's Ashes a great work rather than a mere string of anecdotes.

So the film runs glumly along, episode after episode, with no plot whatsoever. Frank's siblings die at the rate of about one every ten minutes, but the only emotion these deaths manage to evoke is indifference. Along the way the film manages to completely squander Emily Watson as Angela. She makes a valiant effort to portray Angela as a tough woman who's not too proud to beg for her children, but wasted are her sharp, delicate eyes and wonderfully expressive mouth. In fact, the occasional, accidental spurts of beautiful acting she is allowed only serve to frustrate the viewer even more as she struggles to do what she can with her underdeveloped role. In one scene, we see the hard set of her firm chin break for a moment, and this barely perceptible tremor is basically the only memorable aspect of her entire performance.

Frankie McCourt himself is portrayed by three actors: 8-year-old Joe Breen, 13-year-old Ciaran Owens and 19-year-old Michael Legge. Sadly, only Breen manages to capture the essence of Frankie and the "odd look" he gets from his good-for-nothing, "North of Ireland, Presbyterian" father. Breen, slack-jawed and observant, effectively captures McCourt's portrayal of himself as a slightly vapid child.

The messy story-telling and poor characterization in the film are aptly capped off by the worst instrumental soundtrack since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. One would expect at least a few traditional Irish folk songs, or instrumentals of a somewhat Irish tone; unfortunately, all we get is sweeping orchestral muck more suited for a huge epic than the simple story of one poor Irish family. Not surprising, considering the fact that John Williams, of Star Wars fame, was in charge of the score. Limerick is no Tatooine.

In the end, the many voiceovers quoting directly from the book simply aren't sufficient to transfer the spirit, humor and pathos from the page to the screen. While multiple themes may have worked in the book, they take away from any strong focus the film might have had. Parker should have chosen from a few of the many themes that run wild through the movie: the father/son relationship, religion, storytelling, education, poverty and class struggles are all jumbled together in a coming-of-age format. Instead of being rabidly faithful to the book and trying to include four out of every five anecdotes, perhaps the adapters should have chosen a few key episodes that could have retained the flavor and heart of the original.

The closing scene is so treacly and trite that it verges on being offensive. The young Frank McCourt, a fresh-faced Irishman with high hopes for the future, is looking out from a boat onto the Statue of Liberty--his first look at the beloved United States for which he's yearned for so long. As the score swells and Frank beams with delight, there's a moment of suspense before you realize that a chorus of ragged Irish immigrants isn't actually going to line up behind him and start singing "America, the Beautiful." This scene is a far cry from the real ending--in which Frank sets foot on American land and promptly beds down a Poughkeepsie housewife.

As Angela herself would have said, this is a "worthless feck" of a movie.

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