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Poor, Pitiful Me

Even the great Alan Parker can't save Angela's Ashes from sappy self-absorption

Boo hoo! Frank McCourt had a miserable childhood! Honestly, who can say their childhood wasn't impoverished in some wayŠ or in many ways? That McCourt survived and eventually published his inescapable memoir is nice, of course, and the book is indeed a poignant and crafty piece of work. Nonetheless, it seems a bit puzzling that this particular tale has become a runaway international best-seller, let alone a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The language is direct and tactile but hardly poetic or unique. (McCourt's no Joyce.) The story itself is a string of maudlin anecdotes that most people wouldn't tolerate coming from the mouth of a friend or family member. And the subject matter, well, it's a rather well worn path. Countless starving individuals have dreamed of crossing the Atlantic to America (where they could perhaps starve more cheaply). In the subgenre of tough Irish boyhood, we already have superb autobiographical accounts from Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy) and Bob Geldof (Is That It?), both of which would make sensational modern movies. And films as disparate as Da and Jim Sheridan's profound The Field have hit the Irish-father-ache button squarely and firmly. So pardon me for entering into this review of Angela's Ashes wondering what all the fuss is about.

British director Alan Parker is a phenomenal storyteller with a gift for creating lasting cultural documents in the form of widely accessible films. From the grit of The Commitments to the soaring spirit of Evita to the intense civil rights dramas Mississippi Burning and Come See the Paradise, he has consistently proven himself an artist of vision and verve. When one considers the impressive, abstract edge of his palette (Birdy, Angel Heart, Pink Floyd: The Wall) and his grasp of America in both icon and stranger-than-fiction reality (Bugsy Malone and the brilliant, sadly underrated The Road to Wellville), he seems possessed of an infinite spectrum of expression. His challenge with Angela's Ashes, therefore, seems to have been how to translate this achingly popular bible of blues into moving pictures.

Clotheslined: Joe Breen gets taunted for his tattered wardrobe as young Frank McCourt.
David Appleby
Clotheslined: Joe Breen gets taunted for his tattered wardrobe as young Frank McCourt.

What we have in Parker's new film is an earnest and reverent take on McCourt's book. It is beautifully directed, it is vividly realized (hats off to director of photography Michael Seresin), and it is utterly devoid of surprise. Even those not yet initiated into the faithful fold via book club or paperback rack may find this narrative familiar enough to breedŠ not contempt or distress, exactly, but mild apathy? Then again, maybe this familiarity, this universality is exactly the point. Perhaps Parker, under the ministrations of ¨ber-producer Scott Rudin, simply has chosen to give the people what they (seem to) want. If that's the case, sure enough, he has succeeded at his task.

"We must have been the only Irish family saying good-bye to the Statue of Liberty, rather than hello to it," marvels Francis McCourt, in the voice of off-screen narrator Andrew Bennett. So much for Depression-era New York and the New World, as the McCourt family sails back to Cork and, soon enough, Limerick, to the dank and depressed hometown slum of Frank's Catholic mother, Angela (Emily Watson, whose ashes, for the record, remain animated throughout these proceedings).

In Brooklyn, Angela met and married Malachy (Robert Carlyle), a no-account boozer with "a hangdog look," and they begat Frank (Joe Breen, first of three Franks), Malachy Jr., twins Eugene and Oliver, and a newly born, newly dead daughter. The main problems faced by Frank back in Eire: His father's a Protestant from Belfast, quick with a song but quicker to drink up any tiny sums of money that come the McCourts' way, and Angela's family despises him; it's cold and wet and the family is starving, which tends to make siblings die; and schoolmasters and priests are a lot less fun than watching Jimmy Cagney movies at the Lyric cinema.

Too much of this, and Angela's Ashes would become total anti-entertainment, but Parker's wise and experienced grasp also wrings from McCourt's book much of its humor, even while, for most of the tale, all hope seems lost. Frank's dance lessons (the slightly older boy is played by Ciaran Owens) -- and his management of his funds -- make for fine compatibility. ("I want to be Fred Astaire," exclaims the boy. "Irish dancers look like they have steel rods up their arses.") In fact, it's when Parker, via McCourt, stops whining and bludgeoning us that the bird of childhood innocence sings most sweetly. There is also humanity to be found in the simple struggles of a Catholic boy entering adolescence, with a wank to the left and a confession to the right. These scenes are among the movie's liveliest and best.

Parker has already confronted the issues of the absent or neglectful father, pretty much de rigueur in contemporary cinema (or society, for that matter), in The Wall and Wellville, so Frank's hope and despair over Malachy Sr. are particularly well handled (if bombastically orchestrated). Carlyle, who continues to push the envelope of his versatility, is ideal (if peculiarly Scottish, alas) as The Father Who Could Not Be; his performance is so spot-on that it's actually in his absence, later on when Frank is in his teens (Michael Legge), that his resonance and failure are most keenly felt.

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