ANGELA'S ASHES

(1999)
With Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge, Ronnie Masterson, Pauline McLynn, Andrew Bennett (narrator)
Directed by Alan Parker
Reviewed by JB

     ANGELA'S ASHES is a perfect example of the difficulties of bringing some books to the screen.  Based on Frank McCourt's best-selling memoirs of his childhood in Depression Era Ireland, ANGELA'S ASHES captures the heartbreak and sadness of McCourt's book but only occasionally captures the humor.  The joy of McCourt's book was in the writing - the run-on sentences and the unquoted quotes that capture the haphazard thought processes of a young boy growing up in conditions that have already killed several of his siblings. To read the book is to be inside young Frankie's head and this is something that simply cannot be recreated easily, if at all, on film without tons of excess narration, which would negate the need for a film version at all.

     So perhaps a film version of Angela's Ashes was always going to be a problematic venture, but the book, spurred on by a recommendation from Oprah Winfrey, became a runaway hit, and a film version almost inevitably followed..  Although ANGELA'S ASHES cannot recreate the experience of the book,  it is a fine movie in its own right thanks to Alan Parker's sensitive direction, a subdued color palette which captures the dreariness of the poor sections of Ireland, and several outstanding performances. Because it is the story of a boy of five growing into a young man of nineteen, ANGELA'S ASHES employs three different actors to play Frank McCourt, and all there is not a false moment in the performance of any of them.  Parker makes the transitions from one actor to another seamlessly throughout the film by jumping through time within the same situation.  For example, we see Joe Breen (youngest Frankie) sitting in a movie house cheering on James Cagney in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and as the narrator speaks of growing up, Ciaran Owens (middle Frankie) is cut into the film within the same shot and Frankie is now ten years old.  Each actor is so good in their role as a different aged Frankie, there is no time or need to miss the one that came before.

     Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle are just about perfect as the long-suffering mother and the useless, alcoholic father.  Watson especially manages to bring the Angela of the book to life on screen.  The key to their performances is how matter of factly they play everything; no screaming matches, no big melodramatic moments, years of shame or anger expressed only with curt dialogue and sharp glances.

    While the film cannot hope to match the humor of the book - McCourt the author manages to make you laugh or smile sometimes even when he is describing the most horrible things - there is still enough humor in the film to keep it from being the "feel-bad movie of 1999", and most of it, if not all, is taken directly from the book.  Fans of the book will appreciate young Frankie having to go to confession three times in two days, once a minute apart from his last confession, as well as Frankie reading his hilarious essay "Jesus And the Weather" in front of his class.  However, more could have been made of Frankie ditching his Irish dancing lessons to go to the movies and then having to fake what he learned that day back at home in front of his family.  

     If you do want to see ANGELA'S ASHES, do yourself a favor and read the book first. 4 - JB

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ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of  the Holy Ghost.  Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, it's been a day since my last confession."
"A day?  And what sins have you committed in a day, my son?"
"I overslept and I nearly missed my First Communion.   My hair stuck up like a Protestant 's and I threw up my First Holy Communion breakfast.  My grandma says she has God in her backyard and what shall she do?"
"Tell your grandmother to wash it away with a little water."

----

"Holy water or ordinary water?"
"He didn't say, Grandma."
"Well, go back and ask him!"

----

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of  the Holy Ghost.  Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, it's been a minute since my last confession."
"A minute?  Are you the boy that was just here?
"I am, Father."
"What is it now?"
"My grandma says, holy water or ordinary water?"

-----

"He says ordinary water and don't go bothering him again!"

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