The strength of “Angela’s Ashes” is precisely what keeps some from the book.
Too depressing, they say. Maybe. Frank McCourt’s megahit memoir of growing up in Depression-era Limerick, Ireland, can strike a raw nerve, conjuring up emotions and images of frustration and misery. Yet it blossoms into a rich, full-bodied tale of subtle triumph.
Alan Parker’s film version, which opens this weekend, works the same way. A young boy attempting to better himself results in a triumph more in tune with a lilting, Celtic pipe rather than the conventional brass and crashing cymbals of a blockbuster. We know the boy has reached his goal, but he hasn’t changed the sadness he left behind. Still, life goes on.
That’s why the film is brilliant. Mr. Parker’s panorama is no jaunt around the country club. It stands out with a lushness of a different kind: that of family, community and healthy ambition.
We follow the adventures of young Frank that include the deaths of his infant siblings, the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, a near-death experience and his struggle to leave home for America.
The director has never strayed from reality in his past films (“Midnight Express,” “Mississippi Burning,” “The Commitments.”) “Angela’s Ashes” is no different: The film is less about booze and blarney and more about the simple ups and downs in life. Mr. Parker’s camera pinpoints the dark, muddy streets and its pale, hard-working people with dirty faces.
One practically smells from the screen the rainy stench of Limerick. Fifteen minutes into the film we get a real sense of how dire conditions are for the McCourts when an infant sister dies.
Yet, like the book a wonder in itself the film keeps us absorbed with the people surrounding the story.
It unblinkingly sees through the child’s eyes even in the direst conditions. The adults aren’t always charming to the children, and vice versa, but that makes for more power, too.
But the movie takes time to appreciate the little things. We see little Frankie share a mug of tea with his father early in the morning, the boy’s favorite part of the day.
We find out where the four McCourt boys got their storytelling charm from: Their father, Malachy, spent much time spinning delicious yarns for them out of thin air. These stories nurtured a thirst in Frank to read, particularly when he was in the hospital.
To prepare the boys for their first Holy Communion, a schoolmaster places slips of paper on their tongues as practice. So Mr. Parker, like Mr. McCourt, gives as much attention to the bright spots as well as Frank’s ultimate quest to find a better world as he does the drab.
Subtle performances power the engine in Mr. Parker’s film. The director combed the Irish countryside to select among 15,000 auditions three boys to play the pivotal role of young Frank. Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge each bring the necessary sweetness and intelligence to carry the growing boy through the two hours. Mr. Parker brings out their gusto.
Emily Watson anchors “Angela’s Ashes” as the mother, her face a mix of saintly strength and tired sadness. She sees her brood not only through the trials of the poor, but the unpredictability of her proud but drink-addicted Northerner husband, Malachy McCourt, played by Robert Carlyle.
The two actors work in concert, even though one wonders if their relationship seems founded more on ignorance than love. They married because of a pregnancy, and pride is Malachy’s creed. Yet Angela’s exasperation dissipates what feeling she has for her husband, and Ms. Watson plays this with able reticence.
The thin, chiseled good looks of Mr. Carlyle enhance an edgy anger throughout the film. He took great pains to find sympathy with the character.
Malachy’s Northern Irishman accent cost him many a job; when Angela suggests he change his accent just to put food on the table, the proud husband explodes. Yet Mr. Carlyle aptly plays this frustrated rage with sympathy. His is just one burst of energy that blazes throughout the production.
The film burns in the mind long after one leaves the theater. Understated wit seems to intertwine Mr. Parker and Mr. McCourt. Their artistry is such that the film and the novel could have been applied with a brush: Even though the colors are brown, gray and drab, they’re done with texture. He has plowed over the lands of this country before, in his gritty tale of an Irish rock band, “The Commitments.”
TITLE: “Angela’s Ashes”
RATING: R (Profanity, vulgarity, brief nudity, occasional traumatic moments)
CREDITS: Directed by Alan Parker
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
FOUR STARS out of a maximum of four stars.