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Review: "Angela's Ashes" lacks the spark of McCourt's classic memoir

Angela's Ashes

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"Angela's Ashes"

Emily Watson recently starred in "The Book Thief"
Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

Directed by Alan Parker

Written by Laura Jones and Alan Parker

Based on the book by Frank McCourt

Starring Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge

Narrator: If I were in America I could say "I love you, dad", the way they do in the films. But in Limerick they'd laugh at you. In Limerick you are only allowed to say you love God, and babies, and horses that win. Anything else is softness in the head.

Movie adaptations of well-loved books rarely satisfy readers who go to theaters and watch the adaptations. Readers who don't understand the process of adapting the written word into a screenplay often expect a movie to recreate literary characters and situations faithfully.

Thus, when novels such as "The Hunt for Red October" are turned into feature films, many of the novel’s fans may say" Oh, it was all right and they got some things pretty much like Tom Clancy wrote, but the book is better.”

Thus it’s not surprising that when director/producer Alan Parker ("Evita") adapted Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer-prize winning memoir "Angela’s Ashes" in 1999, the results were, in a nutshell, underwhelming.

Co-written by Laura Jones ("Portrait of a Lady") and starrng Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, and a trio of young lads (Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge) who play Frank McCourt at different ages), "Angela’s Ashes" is a well-meant but ultimately cheerless adaptation of McCourt’s witty and spirited account of his family’s hardscrabble existence in Limerick, Ireland during the Great Depression and the dark days of World War II.

"Angela’s Ashes" tells the story of the McCourt family’s travails in 1930s Brooklyn. Frank’s (Breen) father Malachy (Carlyle) is a charming Irish immigrant who tends to drink a lot, talks about fighting in the Irish Republican Army against British rule and loses every job he manages to get. His long-suffering wife Angela (Watson) alternates between being frustrated with her husband’s bad habits and having babies, many of which don’t live past toddlerhood.

Eventually, Malachy, Sr. and his family reverse-migrates to Limerick in the Republic of Ireland after the death of Frank’s baby sister Margaret. They end up living in a badly-deteriorated house which tends to flood easily in the damp and rainy environment and is the only house in the block with a toilet.

This is bad enough, but Angela’s husband – who still drinks too much but works very seldom – is discriminated against because he hails from British-ruled Northern Ireland.

As in the book, "Angela’s Ashes" focuses its attention to young Frankie, who is often picked on for being a “Yank” and thought of as being unworthy of an education until the boy starts exhibiting a sharp mind and a way with the written word. Forced to assume the role of man-of-the-house by his dad’s irresponsible ways with money, Frank starts working as a young adolescent, all the while dreaming of making his way back to America.

My Take: On the surface, the movie version of "Angela’s Ashes" appears to be a faithful – if somewhat abridged – adaptation of McCourt’s popular and critically acclaimed memoir. The cast – particularly the leading adults and the two trios of actors who play Frank and Malachy, Jr – turns in fine performances, cinematographer Michael Seresin (Angel Heart) captures the visuals of New York City and Limerick well and the score by John Williams reflects the strong influences of Irish folk music in his lovely and evocative themes.

However, although Laura Jones’ screenplay does a good job of depicting the dank, inhospitable and depressing environments in which the McCourts lived on both sides of the Atlantic, "Angela’s Ashes" lacks the book’s strongest asset: Frank McCourt’s lighthearted humor and wit.

Yes, the events in the movie are essentially the same as in the memoir, but Jones and director Parker give us a far darker and sadder narrative in the screen version.

There is also a sense of emotional distance between the viewer and the film’s characters that is absent from the book when you read it. This is especially true when you listen to the voiceover by actor Andrew Bennett, who is supposedly the adult McCourt in “present day.”

Though I think Bennett is a good voice actor, his line readings seem to be somewhat detached and sound as though he is telling a tale he knows second-hand and not as though he had been Frank McCourt. He emotes correctly and matches words to image well, but he never quite gives us a true sense of having experienced life in Brooklyn or Limerick with Angela, Malachy and the rest of the McCourt clan.

Format: Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Full Screen, Letterboxed, NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
Subtitles: English
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Paramount
DVD Release Date: July 18, 2000
Run Time: 145 minutes

DVD Extra Features:

"A Look Inside": exclusive cast and crew interviews