Rated R - Running Time: 2:25 - Released 12/25/99

Actress Emily Watson earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, not to mention numerous other international awards, for her film debut in 1996's Breaking The Waves and then for last year's Hilary and Jackie; the fact that she did not receive the academy nod for Angela's Ashes is no indication that her work here is any less deserving (incidentally, she has garnered several other award nominations for it). Watson delivers a powerful performance in the title role of Alan Parker's film based on the best-selling autobiography by Frank McCourt, adapted for the screen by Parker and Laura Jones. Sharing the screen with Watson is proven talent Robert Carlyle as Angela's husband Malachy McCourt, and three young men who play their future-author son Frankie at different ages. All are excellent.

Although the film is named after Angela, its main character and narrator is Frankie. At first played by Joe Breen, Frankie tells us the story of his family's trials after they moved back to Limerick, Ireland, from New York in the 1930s. Because his father is from the Protestant northern region, he is shunned by Angela's Catholic family and community, and therefore is practically unable to get a job. The trouble is, on the few occasions when he does find employment, Malachy invariably spends his pay on liquor and is subsequently fired. But despite his failings, Frank's love for him never wavers. Ignorance and disease are rampant in the lanes of Limerick during the period, and the family suffers the loss of a child on more than one occasion. Frank's life unfolds as he grows to a pre-teen (played by Ciaran Owens) and then a young adult (Michael Legge), and we are privy to such life-changing events as his first communion, his first job, his first experience with love (and sex), his bout with typhus, and the effects of being constantly surrounded by death and disease.

Despite the generally tragic and depressing nature of the subject matter, Angela's Ashes is a surprisingly funny film at times. Not only do we enjoy the subtle talents of veteran writer-director-producer Parker (The Road To Wellville, Evita), but the script and all three of the young actors portraying Frankie let us see his occasional sarcastic side and the developing qualities of observation that will eventually lead him to become an author. The film contains a recurring voiceover narrative by the adult Frank which moves the story along and provides a nice orative counterpoint to the expressive behavior of the actors. The opressive "Limerick damp," which infects so many children with consumption, is evoked by the constant rain and filth in the streets; one can almost feel (and smell) the wet, dingy environment. The strong Catholic sentiment of the community is illustrated by a crucifix visible in almost every interior scene. Uniformly good work by a huge supporting cast, which reads like a Dublin phone book, and beautiful music by John Williams and cinema by Michael Seresin make it a lovely treatise on the pleasures and pains of being a poor boy in 1930s Ireland.

There have been a number of excellent films in recent years which have drawn inspiration from the Irish point of view, including the aforementioned Waves, The Boxer, in which Watson also appeared, The Full Monty (which featured Carlyle), and Waking Ned Devine. In a way, they may all make us question the validity of the phrase "luck of the Irish," but Angela's Ashes certainly perpetuates the good fortune afforded the film industry by the turmoil-ridden Emerald Isle. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive