Monday, January 17, 2000

Angela's Ashes / *** (1999)

The memoirs of Frank McCourt, which are the source for Alan Parker's production of "Angela's Ashes," may very well be some of the most descriptive and beautiful words ever written on paper--the kind of poetic memoirs that draw the reader into an intricate atmosphere, and allow them to experience, firsthand, at what the writer likely went through to relive the memories. Page after page, McCourt's details describe the desolation and poverty his family experienced during a torturous life that begun in the 1930s in Brooklyn, and continued for over a decade back in their home country, Ireland. Essentially, McCourt's work is a modern classic--the "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" of literature, without even holding back the painful memories for a second.

Just as the words move us, though, the length of the memoirs can pose somewhat of a problem for readers who are discouraged by prolonged subjects. Such material could easily suit a length of four hours at the movie theater, but director Alan Parker (the man who managed to take the 30+-year life of Eva Peron and squash it down to two brilliant hours) was apparently determined to cut short these accounts of Irish hunger down to the length of 145 minutes. As to be expected, this is a little discouraging when hoping for a complete faithful film adaptation--we can expect a loss of several important details in the screenplay. Most depressingly with this movie adaptation, writers Laura Jones and Alan Parker renounce themselves over to the contrived emotional drivel that plagues so many of Hollywood's recent melodramas. The movie is a disappointment, lacking the emotional significance of the literature, and failing to capture our hearts in the way that McCourt's precise words did. Nonetheless, this shouldn't prevent moviegoers from approaching the film as a stable, technically-flawless family drama with solid performances and smooth pacing.

"Angela's Ashes" doesn't beat around the bush, even for a movie; it tells of a brutal ten-year period involving a family's survival through poverty, and all the discoveries they make about each other during that painful time. The movie opens in Brooklyn 1935; upon the death of the newest and fifth-born child of a poor Irish family, the grief-stricken mother Angela (Emily Watson) and father Malachy (Robert Carlyle) decide that it is in their family's best interest to return to their home in Limerick, Ireland, where they hope their fight with hunger and disease will be of less a nuisance (interestingly enough, the film's narrator, Frank McCourt, points out that his family may be the first in Irish history to say good-bye to the Statue of Liberty).

Things get much worse, however, once they have returned home. Each time the rains come, the first floor of the building they live in floods; as a result of cold and damp situations, two of Frank's brothers perish. Without getting into much more detail (there are a lot of specifics here that can easily take away from the dramatic impact if they are revealed beforehand), the story essentially embarks on a new route afterwards, following McCourt as he survives the poverty, and learns to deal with all sorts of complex but identifiable problems, such as curiosity about girls, work, bigotry, and religion (he was raised in a Catholic household).

Because of the extreme nature of the situation, one will find it amazing that Frank was able to recall all of these painful memories for literary purposes (we feel that certain details might be better left forgotten). But this, maybe, is part of the fascination people might have for the story in the first place; everything written and seen on screen is based on fact, told from the perspective of a child who was, at the time, not old enough to completely comprehend why life had dealt his family such a hard hand, why children in his neighborhood suffered from famine, and why peoples' religious views were criticized by those who thought on different beliefs.

The movie will be a warm welcome, no doubt, to those who can identify with the overwhelming growth of poverty in many of the planet's countries (especially those who have other dreadful problems). But it all gets, alas, a little more depressing than necessary; some of the sentiment provoked in the later scenes, for example, is a bit too unbelievable, obviously inspired by the same Hollywood minds who believe that you cannot be having a good time unless you are crying rivers. The strongest virtues that "Angela's Ashes" have are in its technical credits and near-faithful adaptation of McCourt's stirring memoirs; the story is perfectly intact, and the cinematographers are brilliant in their quest to evoke cold and cruel atmosphere. Too bad that much of the story's emotional charge has been traded in for typical studio sentiment.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US/Ireland); 1999; Rated R; 145 Minutes

Emily Watson: Angela
Robert Carlyle: Malachy McCourt
Michael Legge: Frank
Joseph Breen: Young Frank
Ciaran Owens: Middle Frank

Produced by David Brown, James Flynn, Kit Golden, Doochy Moult, Morgan O'Sullivan, Alan Parker, Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder, Eric Steel and David Wimbury; Directed by Alan Parker; Screenwritten by Laura Jones and Alan Parker; based on the memoirs by Frank McCourt

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