Muck of the Irish
Angela's Ashes Gets the Despair but Misses the Wit
If you think hell hath no fury like a scorned lover, try balancing on the tightrope that filmmakers walk in adapting a cherished book to the screen. How does one bring into three dimensions beloved characters and events without breaking faith with millions of loyal readers? In the case of Frank McCourt's revered Angela's Ashes, the saga of his poverty-stricken, Depression-era Irish-Catholic childhood, there may be as many expectations for its screen incarnation as there was for the adaptation of Gone With the Wind.
Fully aware of the daunting task before him, writer/director Alan Parker (Evita) makes a valiant effort at transforming McCourt's remarkable work into film. Despite a potent cast headed by Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle, an effective script by Parker and Laura Jones (Oscar and Lucinda), and richly detailed, beautifully photographed images of Limerick's wretchedness, Parker nevertheless fails, chiefly by missing the saving grace behind the book: McCourt's humanistic and humorous voice. It isn't enough that Parker very nearly succeeds; in this case, more than for any adaptation in memory, "nearly" just isn't good enough.
McCourt's pure and direct memoir, laced with a vibrant tone of humor and optimism that lifts it from its setting of endless despair, proved the publishing sensation of the late '90s, remaining on the best-seller list from 1996 to the present day and ultimately winning the genial schoolteacher a much-deserved Pulitzer in 1997. Although his 1999 follow-up, 'Tis, is not as impressive, McCourt's contribution to the art of memoir writing is irrefutable.
Parker begins his version of McCourt's tale in New York, where immigrants Malachy (Carlyle) and Angela McCourt (Watson) are already loaded down with a herd of children (including a young, confused Frank) and struggling to survive unemployment and the death of their youngest child. With few prospects, the McCourts return to Irelandwith Frank ruefully noting in voice-over that they were the only Irish immigrants waving goodbye to Ellis Islandand Angela's hostile family, which cannot abide her marriage to a Protestant from Northern Ireland.
The McCourts settle into a meager, shiftless existence in Limerick. Malachy repeatedly loses jobs and continually drinks away his pitiful earnings, even as two more of his children die of malnutrition. Frank and his brother Malachy Jr., who face their own struggles with tormenting peers and frequently cruel teachers, watch their mother deal with depression and the humiliation of begging and marvel at her determined optimism that her husband will awaken to his responsibilities. But for all his robust geniality, Malachy's feckless behavior eventually wears Angela out and even wearies his adoring sons. Carlyle brings great heart to Malachy, making him more sorry than mean, stirring genuine pity for a man who is far outside his depth.
Parker neither spares nor sentimentalizes the gloomy reality of the family's isolation; through all the destitution and degradations endured by the McCourts, grim, puritanical priests hovered, offering neither hope nor salvation. In this sphere, Parker accurately and unflinchingly conveys the McCourts' dismay and pain.
In the title role, Watson supplies every scene she's in with a rueful, pained, muted, yet dignified suffering that never feels cheap or manipulative. But for all that, there is little for her to do but clutch an armload of children, weep, and nag her husband. Watson is ideally cast, but in making Angela so one-dimensional the film lets the actress down.
One of the ways in which it does soan error that haunts the entire filmis by ignoring the crucial beginnings of Angela and Malachy's relationship. When we first meet them, they are already knee-deep in squirming childrenwho begin dropping off at an alarming rate, provoking, not unexpectedly, Angela's nervous breakdown. Just a glimpse of Malachy and Angela's doomed romance in New York (which, as described in their son's book, boiled down to young lust and a shotgun wedding) would have provided a greater understanding of their beleaguered commitment, the depths of their tragedy, and the magnitude of Frank's eventual achievement.
Another obstacle that prevents the full realization of McCourt's tale is the necessity of Frank being played by three separate young actors (Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge as the child, pre-adolescent, and adolescent Franks, respectively). It's an unavoidable casting decision, perhaps, butdespite the varying mastery of each young actorthe shuffling diminishes audience identification with the character. Just as we're getting comfortable with one Frank, another springs up, jolting the viewer out of Parker's carefully structured mood.
Finally, Parker and Jones' choices of what to keep and what to omit from McCourt's narrative grow increasingly frustrating. Perhaps it's petty to quibble over this inevitable pitfall of adapting literature for the screen, but the film, even at 21/2 hours, is pervaded by a sense of hastiness, a rush to get to the next turn of the tale. Those familiar with the wondrous details of the book will undoubtedly howl at the many characters and events omitted. Perhaps some books are meant to remain books, words on a page conjuring up visions unique to every reader. For the many who have shared McCourt's words, the film will be, at best, a letdown. For those coming to Angela's Ashes for the first time, the best the film can do is to send them to the original.