Main cast: Emily Watson (Angela McCourt), Robert Carlyle (Malachy McCourt), Michael Legge (Teenage Frank McCourt), Joseph Breen (Young Frank McCourt), and Ciaran Owens (Middle Frank McCourt)
Director: Alan Parker
Sometimes it’s how one tells a story that counts. This Irish Depression Era coming-of-age saga, based on the autobiography of same name by Frank McCourt, isn’t anything special. Someone I know, who reads these sort of books, claims that most critics who bemoan the lost of the wry humor in the translation from book to movie are right. I haven’t read the book, but I must say even I feel that the director and the scriptwriters (Laura Jones and Alan Parker) are too in awe of their subject. This movie is like a beautiful photo album that skims the surface but rarely delves deeper into the psyche of the main characters in the movie.
Frank McCourt is born poor. His father is a winning man who, unfortunately, can’t stay sober to keep a job or stop squandering what little precious money he makes on alcohol. His mother Angela is a long-suffering woman whose religion forbids her to leave the man she is married to. In the first half hour, three of Frankie’s siblings die, one by one. It’s not an easy movie to sit through.
Angela’s sisters in Brooklyn sends the McCourt family back to Limerick, Ireland when Angela falls into depression and Frank continues to drink. Even back in Ireland, things never get any easier.
Yet the story is successful in weaving poignant, happier moments in-between the bleaker hours the family faces. This is mainly thanks to the great cast. Emily Watson is spectacular as Angela, an ill, waifish woman who stays strong for the sake of her family. Robert Carlyle demonstrates the deadly charm of a shiftless rogue – when Malachy is sober, he displays a winning charm that, at that moment, makes him the best father in the world to Frank and his siblings.
Frank’s story isn’t new – anyone having lived through the Depression Era may just tell the same story. His story is also a testimony of the transience of bliss – first loves, friendships – nothing lasts. Everyone ultimately goes away or dies, and it is oneself one must rely on. Yet in that one happy moment when you are laughing and be with your loved ones, it is enough.
Angela’s Ashes is great because the main actors, from Ms Watson and Mr Carlyle, to the three young men who played McCourt, work their hardest to shine in their underwritten roles and succeed. This is a testimony of the strength of the human soul as well as our ability to adapt and make do to find succor even in the bleakest of times. It is inspirational.
However, I can’t overlook the fact that the movie also skimps on scenes (the last hour has a rushed feel to it), and it never tries to be anything deeper than a beautifully shot montage of Frankie’s memories.