Author's Humor Missing in Filmed Memoir
Turning any famous literary work into a successful film must be quite a challenge. In the case of Angelaís Ashes, it might be downright impossible. Frank McCourtís much-loved memoir about his Irish Catholic childhood won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1997. Published in 25 languages, this popular book sold over six million copies in 30 countries and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks.
While McCourt shows how devastating poverty can be for children, his humorous writing style makes readers chuckle frequently during each chapter. Sadly, few Irish eyes (or any other kind of eyes) will be smiling during the movie version. Most of the humor is missing. Like bread without yeast, Angelaís Ashes minus the authorís wit canít rise to meet expectations. Itís McCourtís voice thatís needed to enliven this depressing film. Unfortunately, he didnít write the screenplay.
Written, directed, and produced by Alan Parker (Evita), the movie focuses grimly on the deaths of Frankís siblings, his motherís suffering, and his fatherís alcoholism. Granted, a few amusing incidents are included, most at the expense of the Catholic Church. For example, when young Frank confesses to a bewildered priest, "Itís been one minute since my last Confession," thereís a hint of sarcasm at what ridiculous things children are forced to do in the name of religion.
Director Parker did at least one thing right. He cast three promising young actors as Frank McCourt during various stages of his childhood. Eight-year-old Joe Breen, a farmerís son, makes his debut as the youngest Frank. With the map of Ireland on his face, this lad fills the screen with youthful intensity, making it difficult to watch anyone else when he appears on camera. Michael Legge (Stray Dogs) and Ciaron Owens (Agnes Browne) play Frank at older ages. Although Parker manages to pull off remarkably seamless transitions from one Frank to the other, itís young Breen who stays in oneís memory after leaving the theater.
Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) and Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), as Frankís parents Angela and Malachy, take misery to a whole new level on film. Almost always pregnant, Angela frowns most of the time. And why shouldnít she? Her husband, who canít hold a job, uses what little money he earns on drink. Angela is reduced to begging for leftovers and gathering coal from the streets of Limerick. No wonder young Frank dreams of going to America "where no one has bad teeth and everyone has a lavatory."
Considering his fatherís serious faults, why does Frank hold such affection for him? The movie offers no satisfactory explanation. But the book does. Malachyís storytelling ability captivated the impressionable young boy. Frank simply loved listening to his fatherís tales about Cuchullan, the man who saved Ireland, and about the Angel of the Seventh Step --- the one who brings babies.
The filmís gloomy cinematography enhances its feeling of hopelessness. In addition, scenes of urinating, masturbation, and vomiting abound. In other words, this is not the Ireland of The Quiet Man or Waking Ned Devine.
In the press notes for Angelaís Ashes, filmmaker Parker writes, "Every reader of Frankís memoir has their own movie locked away inside their head." Too bad this is the one that got filmed.
(Released by Paramount/Universal and rated "R" for language and sexuality.)