If you think the prevailing attitude toward sex in the United States is somewhat backward, consider Ireland of the late 1960s, as depicted in Agnes Browne, the new movie directed by Anjelica Huston. When asked by her best friend, Marion (Marion O'Dwyer), if she misses "it," the recently widowed Agnes (Huston) replies, "Miss what?"
"You know it."
"The queer thing?"
"Yeah, the queer thing."
As it happens, she doesn't miss it, primarily because she has never had an orgasm and doesn't even believe such things exist. As for Marion, well, she has had two. She enjoyed both of them, yet she's so guilt-ridden over the sexual pleasure, even within her marriage, that she thinks it caused the painful lump in her breast and is too embarrassed to see the doctor about it. "Fuck you, Redser Browne," Agnes later says, chiding her dead husband. "Seven children and not one orgasm to show for it."
Welcome to the world of Brendan O'Carroll, the Irish writer who first created the Browne family for a radio drama; it's a world where poverty and hard times are borne with a mixture of amusement and profanity, where families of eight or more can inhabit a one-bedroom apartment and still stand together through thick and thin. Having dramatized the Browne family on Ireland's RTE radio for two years, O'Carroll had no problem cranking out the novel The Mammy in six weeks, only to see it top the Irish best-seller list for 20 subsequent weeks. The Mammy was to be the first of three Agnes Browne novels and is the basis for the film, retitled so as not to offend American audiences ("mammy" simply means "mommy" to the Irish).
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Adapted for the screen by O'Carroll and John Goldsmith, the film, under Huston's direction, strongly retains the spirit of the novel -- a tale of a widowed fruit seller struggling to make ends meet while raising seven children -- and even reproduces much of the dialogue word for word. An antagonist has been added for the benefit of those who need a villain to hiss at, in the person of a loan shark named Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone). With O'Carroll overseeing the adaptation, the character blends in effectively, although he does create a more tangible sense of tension than the novel has. Instead of poverty being the only "antagonist," there's now a malevolent face on it, a man who's going to collect and seize and go so far as to get the children hooked on gambling. While conventional wisdom holds that even comedies need a sense of dramatic tension, the addition of such to the novel's generally lighter-toned story may not be to everyone's liking.
Which is not to imply that the story doesn't deal with serious issues. It's just that, like the Irish working class in general, the film is all about dealing with difficulty through humor, lubricated with the occasional pint of Guinness. There's a simple and powerful scene of Agnes and best friend Marion walking along the beach, both knowing that Marion may have developed a tumor but neither one willing to let down her guard and admit it to the other. Both actresses are astonishing: Huston hasn't had an interesting role in so long that it's a revelation to see her morph so completely into a character that has nothing whatsoever in common with Morticia Addams, and newcomer O'Dwyer, in her first big-screen role, is more than Huston's equal. Of course, the best-friend role is often more interesting than the lead anyway, but the ladies manage to share the spotlight with grace.
The movie's ending is the only problematic part. While the novel concluded with a touch of magic realism (a tonal departure, but not entirely unbelievable), the movie has amped up the magic realism and tied it to an obligatory showdown with the villainous Mr. Billy. It's a tonal change that doesn't work and is additionally undercut with a "surprise" bit of stunt casting that is brought to the viewer's attention in the opening credits! Previews that spoil a film's best surprise are one thing, but the movie's own opening titles? Viewers should avoid reading them if they can.
Given that Agnes Browne clocks in at an efficient 96 minutes, it's too bad that some of the book's side plots aren't included, in particular an incident involving Agnes's daughter getting her hair cut by a nun. (It is alluded to when the girl comes home one day wearing a hat.) But perhaps we shouldn't complain when movies feel too short, given the large number that are too long. Always leave the audience wanting more, etc. There are, after all, two more books about Agnes that could become movie sequels should there be a demand.