Angela's Ashes

Directed by Alan Parker
Starring: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge, and narrated by Andrew Bennett.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and some language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
January 23, 2000

I suppose fairy tales can come true. Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930 to Irish immigrants. The Depression made life too difficult, so they went back to Ireland. Out of a miserably poor childhood, McCourt managed to get a college education back in America, become a professor, and write his childhood memoirs: Angela's Ashes. It was a huge bestseller, especially for a memoir of an unknown person. He even won a Pulitzer Prize, which begs the question: if his childhood had been at all prosperous, could he have ever been this successful? I can't answer that, so I'll just have to review the film Alan Parker (Midnight Express, The Commitments) made from this book.

At the beginning of the film, Frank (Joe Breen) is five years old, and his sister Margaret Mary is born. She dies just a few days later, which prompts their trip back to the old country. Frank's mother, Angela (Emily Watson), is from Limerick, so they move there, near her family. Her mother (Ronnie Masterson) and her sister Aggie (Pauline McLynn) don't care for her husband, Malachy (Robert Carlyle), who is a protestant from the north of Ireland. There is a lot of resentment for the English in the newly independent Ireland, which makes Frank's childhood even more difficult. Nobody wants a half-protestant from America: a country almost as evil as Britain.

Things are also difficult for Malachy outside the family, where he can barely find employment. When he does manage to get a job, he drinks his wages, then misses work the next morning and gets fired. He tries going to England for work, and promises to wire money back each week. The telegrams never come, and Angela has to keep her children alive on a miniscule dole from the government. Frank grows up (being played by Ciaran Owens, and eventually Michael Legge) in these abhorrent conditions, dreaming of the day he can return to America.

Obviously, a great film could be made from Angela's Ashes, but not in this case. There is a certain emotional detachment that prevents this story from fully breaking through. A typically Irish thing to do is to use humor to avoid tense situations (it's something a certain Matthew Shane Heffernan does all the time), and this film does just that. This approach does work, and there is a good balance between the comedy and the misery.

The three boys who play Frank all perform well under the pressure of carrying this film. Breen is especially impressive in his film debut, and he also has the honor of appearing on the poster as well as the new paperback edition of Angela's Ashes. Watson and Carlyle -- the relatively seasoned pros -- also do a good job, but far from their best work.

So far, Universal's Oscar bait has not been successful. The only Golden Globe nomination they have managed is for John Williams' score. The Academy also likes him, but let's hope he gets nominated for this and not for the revision of his 23-year-old Star Wars score.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Angela's Ashes (1999)

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Angela's Ashes (1999) -- VHS
Angela's Ashes (1999) -- DVD
Angela's Ashes, a memoir by Frank McCourt -- Hardcover
Angela's Ashes, a memoir by Frank McCourt -- Paperback
Angela's Ashes, a memoir by Frank McCourt -- Audio Cassette (read by the author)
Angela's Ashes: Music from the Motion Picture -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan