Alan Parker's "Angela's Ashes" shows vestiges of the wry humor and gutsiness that saw the young Frank McCourt through his Dickensian childhood and drew many a reader into his spirited account of growing up in Limerick's squalid slums. The pug-nosed lads who portray Frankie at 5 (Joe Breen), 10 (Ciaran Owens) and 14 (Michael Legge) all are well-cast, freckled charmers. Otherwise, Parker's well-meaning adaptation is unrelentingly sodden.
Of course, McCourt's childhood was miserable, but as Frankie observes at the outset of both movie and memoir, "The happy childhood is hardly worth your while." Parker readily illustrates the crushing poverty, parental neglect and religious hypocrisy that Frankie and his brothers endured. But principally, the writer-director-producer is preoccupied with Limerick's dank, gray weather, so well realized you can practically smell the wet wool of the costumes.
Life might have been easier if the McCourts had stayed in America, but Malachy Sr. (Robert Carlyle) and Angela (Emily Watson) bucked the trend. They turned their backs on the tenements of Depression-era Brooklyn and immigrated back to Ireland with their sons. Angela's dour and parsimonious Catholic relations grudgingly set the family up in a furnished apartment and pay the first month's rent. There'll be no more charity, says Frankie's grandmother, who strongly suggests that Malachy get off his arse and find a job.
Frankie's granny, aunts and uncles despise Malachy. As a Protestant from Northern Ireland, he is an obvious target for their bigotry--they even blame Frankie's cowlick on his Protestant genes. Still, they might be willing to forgive him that if he made any genuine effort to support Angela and her brood. Malachy, alas, is an alcoholic and routinely squanders his wages or welfare checks on drink, leaving his family to beg for food and coal.
Angela, who should have stopped believing in him long ago, acts as if taken by surprise every time he comes home penniless and stinking drunk. Nevertheless she and Frankie adore him, for he can make them laugh with his fanciful tales. Angela repeatedly forgives the fast-talking rogue and takes him to bed, and every nine months or so, there's another mouth to feed--or another wee casket to fill. It's hard to say what's worse: her fertility or her gullibility. Both bring her grief, shame and heartache.
The children are the innocent victims of Angela's martyrdom, Malachy's shiftlessness and their grandmother's miserliness. Yet like the mythical leprechaun, Frankie not only survives the bleak conditions, he does so with pluck, laughter and the certain knowledge that tomorrow can't get any worse than today.
Parker's film version of Frankie's childhood is faithful to the memoir, though it stops short of the hopeful ending. But in the translation from page to film, the life seems to have gone out of the story. The disappointment is all the greater coming from Parker, who deftly captured the verve of the Irish working class in 1991's "The Commitments."
Watson, as lively an actress as you'd ever want to see, is limp as an Irish dishrag as the whiny Angela, who begs and whores to keep her children fed and warm. The movie suffers mightily for her listlessness--all the more so when Carlyle as the more complicated, improbably sympathetic Malachy leaves the scene and takes his cussed blarney with him. The supporting cast is strong, but the characters they play are invariably mean. What's left is a litany of Gaelic woe.
McCourt rose from his mother's ashes a phoenix, but Parker pulled out all the finest feathers.
Angela's Ashes (145 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content and language.