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Angela's Ashes

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Angela's Ashes

Starring: Robert Carlyle, Emily Watson
Director: Alan Parker
Rated: R
RunTime: 145 Minutes
Release Date: January 2000
Genres: Drama, Comedy

*Also starring: Joseph Breen, Ciaran Owens, Ronnie Masterson, Liam Carney, Andrew Bennett, Joe Breen, Michael Legge, Pauline McLynn

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Ireland is magical place. To tourists, at least, the country is a verdant paradise whose misty climate yields beautiful complexions on this earth's most beautiful women. No wonder, then, that while one out of six Americans is of Irish descent, more than fifty percent (a rough guess) of its Hollywood actors might claim the Emerald Isle as their ancestral homeland.

But like the azure and gorgeous islands of the Caribbean, the country is flawed by poverty. Currently Ireland has a twenty percent unemployment rate, while most of those lucky enough to have kissed the Blarney Stone and found jobs are not about to find themselves ever among the Fortune 500. But poverty, in rare instances, can give way to fame and fortune. Take Frank McCourt, for example. He turned his dirt-poor, abused background in a veritable pig sty into a cash cow for himself. His book, "'Tis," is currently the number one New York Times best-seller and the story of his earlier days, "Angela's Ashes," made the same list in 1996. Why so? After all, most of the world's people are poor--dirt poor when compared to middle-class Americans--and a fair number of these destitute folks have risen by their bootstraps. So what puts McCourt's books over the top? I'd say the writing. When he learned at the age of 15 that he could make his words dance--from the time he began writing threatening letters for a Limerick moneylender--he was on his way to shucking the bicycle he had been using as a deliverer of telegrams, squeezed together enough money (literally by hook and crook), and took off for the United States to escape his indigence.

Alan Parker's filmed version follows the highlights of the 1996 autobiography, giving the audience at least a taste of just about every dramatic occurrence of the volume. Andrew Bennett's periodic narration fills us in to details which could not be effectively dramatized while at the same time giving us an encounter with McCourt's way with words. We're on our way into the life of a man from age five to age fifteen, a life that is alternately bleak and fun-filled, with incidents both morose and humorous. Michael Seresin's camera lens is bathed in light green not so much to symbolize the lushness of Ireland but to signify the dreary, rain-soaked misery of the poor sections of Limerick where most of the story is filmed.

Young Frank (Joe Breen), the kid whose adorable, freckle- faced mug is on the ads for the film, did not have to wait long for tragedy to hit his family. When he was five years old he witnessed the deaths of one brother and one sister, attending a burial ceremony that was financed by the standard church- sponsored giver of charity in the town. His family is poor not so much because of the numbers of brothers and sisters he has but because Ireland as a whole was suffering from the bad times of the 1930s and Frank's dad (Robert Carlyle) was using the meager money he received on the dole to support the Guinness family. The McCourts trekked from Brooklyn to Limerick, perhaps to escape the poverty they faced in the Williamsburg section, only to land in an Ireland which could not grant them so much as a lavatory in the hall. Much is made of the way the neighbors would use the drainpipe outside the McCourt shack to pour their slop buckets, which emitted an odor which one tenant advised would require the use of gas masks during the warm weather. The "lobby" of the building was permanently under water, the three-member welfare board would show their contempt for the family's pleas in the presence of scores of other applicants, and all the teachers save one would take pleasure in slapping the hands of any boys who did not know that Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins were the greatest men who ever lived.

Frank McCourt's poverty was apparently worse than that of the other kids in the school. In one instance he had to wear shoes so broken-down and glued together that the entire population of young pupils roared with laughter. When Frank would return to his home, life was no better, as the people in his family on the side of his mother Angela (Emily Watson) showed their contempt for the Northern Ireland background of Frank's dad.

Home, Church, School and Government failed the McCourts, though much of the humor in the movie comes from the confessions that the 10-year-old Frank (Ciaran Owens) and the 15-year-old boy (Michael Legge) give in church. When Frank reaches the mature age of 15 he enjoys his first pint, has his first brief affair with an older girl afflicted with consumption, and takes the big step of returning alone to America while his mother continues prostituting herself to the building's landlord. His dad is permanently abroad in England despite his statement that he wouldn't give that country "the steam off my piss."

The difference between this successfully adapted version of "Angela's Ashes" and other movies that center on extended progeny like the highly marketed "Magnolia" is that the former always feels as though it is dealing with real people suffering real problems while almost everything about "Magnolia" is contrived. Watching the film, you gain a greater appreciation of America, a land which during the 30s and 40s is glorified by the most scholarly of Frank's teacher as a Shangri-La. There is even a mock Statue of Liberty atop one of the buildings that reminds us of a similar effigy held aloft on one majestic day in Beijing's Tienanmen Square. We get more of a sense of why so many people from so many foreign lands have come to America's shores, not only for economic opportunity but for a sense of freedom from the taunts of people whose races and religions and lifestyles are different from their own. Nowhere in the U.S. do we witness the scandalous friction between Catholics and Protestants suggested in this film, and presumably even the poorest people with roofs over their heads have lavatories available to them. "Angela's Ashes" is a gem for the sort of audience that needs no fast-cutting and no contrived conflicts, but a real story about real people with real problems. Is this the sort of film that Hollywood studios like Paramount and Universal should continue supporting?

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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