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Mrs. Browne Meets Mr. Jones

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2000


    'Agnes Browne' Anjelica Houston, left, plays the title role and directs "Agnes Browne." (October Films)
Now, I enjoy weepers with happy endings just as much as the next guy (okay, maybe not as much as the guy with the mangled, tear-soaked box of Good 'n' Plenty in his hand). What I don't appreciate is an ending so preposterously chirpy it feels like I'm being mugged by a gang of leprechauns.

In "Agnes Browne," a generally well-made tale of humor and hard luck set in the late 1960s Dublin and based on Brendan O'Carroll's 1994 best-selling Irish novel "The Mammy," the last few minutes are so false and so contrived that they actually undermine the message of the film. Up until the 11th hour, the film seems to have had something to do with the importance of family, self-reliance and the realization that our actions have consequences. As it stands at the closing credits, "Agnes Browne" is mostly about the consequences of befriending Tom Jones, the once and future sex symbol who apparently has the capacity to restore justice to an unjust world with one mighty swivel of his now creaky hips. (But more on this later.)

The story of a newly widowed mother of seven and her struggle to raise her family and find love with the hunky Frenchman down the street, "Agnes Browne" is well-served by the sensitive direction of Anjelica Huston, who not only plays the title character with subtle believability, but is able to elicit naturalistic performances from a brood of juvenile supporting actors (whose characters range in age from 2 to 14). The poverty here may not be of the same grinding variety as "Angela's Ashe's," but the poor Browne kids do spend much of the film wearing one set of itchy wool pullover sweaters.

The main story thread concerns Agnes' efforts to escape from the clutches of the ruthless Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone), a sadistic loan shark who entraps young Frankie Browne (Ciaran Owens) into a debt the child cannot pay. Billy's act is in retaliation for Agnes having the gall to pay off an earlier loan in one lump sum, but why he gets so upset at this transgression is never made clear, since she paid him off with interest.

There are several great laugh lines that leaven the misery of the film, such as this divine malapropism as Agnes commiserates with a neighbor (the earthy Marion O'Dwyer) about her own lack of sexual fulfillment: "Seven children, and not one organism to show for it!" Other subplots revolve around Agnes' budding romance with Pierre the baker (Gerard Depardieu look-alike Arno Chevrier) and our heroine's dream of going to hear Tom Jones in a sold-out concert.

Which brings me to the oddest thing about this otherwise grittily realistic film. The 59-year-old singer actually plays his 26-year-old self in the story, in what is one of the most bizarre acting stretches in recent memory. According to the film's press kit, Jones himself admits that, "I was slightly nervous, having to look as I did in 1967. But Anjelica told me not to worry, as it was a 'surreal situation.' "

A surreal deus ex machina in tight pants and a bad perm is just about the last thing that this fine little slice of Irish life needs to make it work. In fact, it's the one thing that nearly drives a stake through the heart of an otherwise lively and life-affirming tale.

AGNES BROWNE (R, 92 minutes) – Contains obscenity, humorous discussions of sex and violence directed against a child.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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