A MULTI-HANKY coming-of-age epic, Angela's Ashes deservedly won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Frank McCourt. His best-selling memoir of growing up wretched and Irish-Catholic—one and the same, according to the author—deconstructs the sentimental images of Ireland that entrance the popular imagination. The book is full of mildewy weather, dead babies, sadistic priests, and mind-numbing poverty. Over it all hovers the spirit of McCourt's father, an alcoholic who couldn't hold a job but imparted his storytelling skills to Frank before disappearing for good one Christmas Day.
directed by Alan Parker
with Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson
opens January 21 at Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree
Wry, gallows humor saves McCourt's biography from merely cataloging misery and is also essential to adapting the episodes of Frank's youth to the big screen. The film begins in New York in 1935, with the death of Frank's 7-week-old sister. His parents reverse the era's usual Irish migratory route and take the family home to Limerick. There, Angela—Emily Watson of Breaking the Waves—is still scorned for marrying a Protestant from the North—Robert Carlyle of The Full Monty. Two more of Frank's siblings die young while Malachy drinks away his meager earnings and Angela pleads for charity.
Despite this degradation, Frank seems to inhabit a state of grace; aside from a few harmless pranks, he's a sweet kid. He grows up, watching James Cagney movies at the local cinema and celebrating his First Communion. Sick with typhoid in the hospital, he marvels at the luxury of having his own bed and toilet. In this solitude he also discovers Shakespeare, the door to a world previously unimagined.
Three excellent young actors portray Frank at various ages, with the freckled, cowlick-afflicted, moon-faced Joe Breen a particular charmer. Carlyle captures Malachy's charismatic split personality—equal parts drunk, father, and dreamer. Watson gives a perfectly understated performance as the long-suffering Angela. Though his subject invites sentimentality, Alan Parker steers clear of pennywhistles and misty landscapes. In their place are cramped, filthy lanes, communal family beds, and projectile vomiting. (Maybe Parker's trying to atone for the Celtic schmaltz of The Commitments.)
McCourt returned to America when he was nineteen, and Angela's Ashes ends with this escape, which is also a rebirth. It's the memory of his father—and the fear of becoming him—that sends Frank across the Atlantic. When the Statue of Liberty comes into view on screen, he's home free, but viewers will be sorry they've reached the end.