[Screen It]

(1999) (Angelica Huston, Marion O'Dwyer) (R)

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Drama: A recently widowed woman copes with raising her seven kids, making enough money to pay back a local loan shark and hoping to see singer Tom Jones with her best friend in 1960's Dublin.
It's 1967 Dublin, and Agnes Browne (ANGELICA HUSTON), has just found herself a widow with seven children, including oldest sons Mark (NIALL O'SHEA) and Frankie (CIARAN OWENS), to raise. Of course, her best friend Marion Monks (MARION O'DWYER) is there for emotional support, but Agnes finds that she must borrow money from the local loan shark, Mr. Billy (RAY WINSTONE), to pay for her husband's funeral.

That out of the way, Agnes joins Marion in selling fruit and vegetables at the local street market, hoping to make enough money to support her family and pay back Mr. Billy and his right-hand thug, Micko (GAVIN KELTRY). Although her life is hard, Agnes enjoys life, a good laugh, and the thought of seeing singer Tom Jones when his concert tour passes through town.

As time passes by, Marion must not only contend with the hardships of being a single mother, but also with repeated encounters with Mr. Billy, an unexpected health crisis and the attention paid to her by a local French baker, Pierre (ARNO CHEVRIER), who's just set up shop nearby.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While I certainly don't claim to be an expert on film financing or the use of product placement in movies to help offset the costs, the appearance of sodas, beer and other goods has become so prevalent in movies that you half expect characters to identify such items by name or for films to include single, but subliminal frames touting their latest advertiser (something that once wasn't that uncommon).

Whether the following occurs is beyond my knowledge about the subject, but one would think that national or city tourism boards would pay films to make their locales more attractive to moviegoers and thus potential tourists. If it's already taking place, then it's rather obvious that places such as San Francisco, Hawaii and Paris have been pumping money into films set in those locales to ensure that they always look good or like fun places to visit.

On the flip side, places such as Detroit, New Jersey and Russia are rarely presented as enticing locales, thus proving that they either don't have competitive advertising budgets for such means or simply refuse to play along with this hypothetical game.

Then there are locales such as Ireland that get the mixed treatment. Films such as "Waking Ned Devine" make the countryside look gorgeous, while pictures like "Angela's Ashes" make the cities - what with the poverty, trash, rundown buildings and overall grimy dampness - fall to the bottom of most tourists' "must visit" lists.

While it's up to anyone who lives there or has visited the North Atlantic Island nation to say whether such cinematic portrayals are accurate or not, the latest film set in a city there, "Agnes Browne," isn't likely to have the phones at the tourist bureau ringing off the hook. Although it isn't necessarily the physical environs that give this portrayal of 1967 Dublin a bad name, the certainly less than affluent lifestyle certainly doesn't help.

While Timex and Eveready respectively tout their products as one that takes a licking and keeps on ticking and another that keeps going and going, I'd say it's the people of inner-city Ireland - at least as presented in the movies -- who should be "poster children" for perseverance through difficult times.

Of course, this film, based on Brendan O'Carroll's novel, "The Mammy" (released in the U.S. in 1999), clearly isn't as harrowing or heartfelt as Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and easily could have taken place in nearly any city without serious repercussions for the story (although the charming accents would have be to jettisoned and/or changed).

In fact, and despite (or perhaps because of) the locale, the film has something of an artificial feel to it, as if a bunch of performers got together and decided to make a quick Dublin-based film. Much of that problem lies directly with Angelica Huston who pulls double duty as both the film's star and director.

Although she's obviously a talented actress (an Oscar winner for "Prizzi's Honor" and a nominee for "Enemies: A Love Story" and "The Grifters") and delivers a solid performance, Huston's take on the character near constantly feels detached from the environs in which it appears. While she's a far better choice than Rosie O'Donnell who reportedly was up for the role (and probably would have given the film another entirely different feel), Huston comes off feeling more like an actress playing a part instead of real, flesh and blood character (compared to say, Emily Watson in the big screen version of McCourt's story).

As the director, and working from screenwriter John Goldsmith and Brendan O'Carroll's adaptation of the latter's novel, Huston (who previously directed the cable movie "Bastard Out of Carolina") doesn't helm a tight enough ship, thus resulting in the film feeling a bit too disjointed and episodic for its own good. That said, neither that nor the other criticisms are meant to imply that the film is bad. It's certainly easy enough to watch, but it never manages to shake off its aura of mediocrity.

Beyond Huston, the rest of the performances are generally solid, with Marion O'Dwyer (a stage and TV veteran making her film debut) delivering a strong performance as Agnes' best friend. Niall O'Shea (making his feature debut) and Ciaran Owens ("Angela's Ashes") are credible as her two oldest kids, but the characters played by Ray Winstone ("The Very Thought of You") as the mean spirited loan shark and Arno Chevrier ("Round Midnight") as Agnes' French suitor aren't developed enough to make them memorable.

Of course, the biggest acting stretch is singer Tom Jones playing Tom Jones. Although one would assume that playing oneself would be the easiest thing to do, it's actually quite tough, especially considering that here the legendary ladies man has to play a version of himself some thirty years younger.

His appearance at the end - in something resembling a musical deus ex machina - does give the film a lighthearted, feel good conclusion. Yet, while it fits in naturally with the two leading ladies' wishes expressed throughout the film, it may come off as something of a cop out to some viewers.

One has to wonder, however, if the real reason he appears could possibly be tied to the Dublin Tourism Board wishing to improve their cinematic image, especially if they can get the singer's fans to believe they might see him there. While that might not be the case and most tourists probably wouldn't fall for such a ploy, at least it leaves the audience with an upbeat view of the city. Decent, but nothing spectacular, "Agnes Browne" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 25, 2000 / Posted March 10, 2000

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