[Screen It]

(1999) (Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle) (R)

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Drama: As his poor Irish Catholic family endures poverty, hunger and a deadbeat but amiable father, a Depression-era boy comes of age while coping with his first communion and confession, his growing interest in girls, and his desire for a better life.
It's 1935, America is deep in the Great Depression, and the McCourt family is doing something unheard of - they're leaving New York to return to Ireland. Due to the recent death of their infant daughter and the lack of jobs for Malachy (ROBERT CARLYLE), the alcoholic patriarch, the impoverished family returns to Limerick where unemployment, starvation and death from the constantly damp weather are just as bad or worse than in the Big Apple.

There, the mother, Angela (EMILY WATSON), hopes that her family will be able to help, but the reception from her mother, Grandma Sheehan (RONNIE MASTERSON), sister Aggie (PAULINE McLYNN), and brother Pat (EANNA MACLIAM) is decidedly less than warm. That's due not only to their disdain toward Malachy and the fact that he's a protestant from Belfast now living in a predominantly Catholic town, but also because of the negative influence he has on their family and children.

Their oldest son, Frank (JOE BREEN), tries to be a normal kid, but must not only contend with them being poor, but also his somewhat bewildering experiences with school as well as his first communion and confession. Even so, he loves his dad and enjoys hearing his many stories, even if Malachy can't hold down a job and spends what little money they have on drinking binges.

As the years pass, Frank (CIARAN OWENS) has grown up to the age of ten where he spends his time playing with friends, has become fixated on girls, and eventually gets a job delivering coal to support his family. Then, after more years have passed, Malachy has left for England to get a job, and Frank (MICHAEL LEGGE), now sixteen, is still interested in girls and continues working in hopes of helping his family and then earning enough money to escape his downtrodden life for a better one back in America.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
One day in a former job I held, a coworker and I discussed our differing childhoods. He grew up in Vietnam, was "drafted" by the army at the age of sixteen to wage war in Cambodia, went AWOL, and then became one of the many "boat people" who fled that country. Along the way he and his companions went without food or water for days, survived thirty-foot seas and were intercepted by a Soviet ship that luckily didn't return them home.

Conversely, I grew up in a Virginia suburb, knew of Vietnam only through some movies I had seen about it, and my biggest worries were about whether I looked like a geek with braces and how to go about talking to a pretty girl in my class. Yes, I was Kevin Arnold in the "The Wonder Years" where my white bread, suburban existence was about as exciting as, well, as white bread can be.

Upon making the comparison, I felt fortunate not to have gone through the horrors of my coworker, but at the same time oddly felt as if I had missed out on something by not having some grand traumatic experience that I could later recount and be thankful to have overcome. Of course not everyone has to have had trauma to gain wisdom about life, and not every member of our older generations actually walked to school everyday, despite their stories of such several mile treks that interestingly always took place in the snow and were often uphill both ways.

Despite the fact that poverty still exists today all around the world and children grow up in often atrocious conditions, people are seemingly enamored with stories of the past where people were less fortunate but still managed to get by, often through the use of humor and heaping dose of pluck and optimism.

As stated by the narrator of Alan Parker's adaptation of Frank McCourt's beloved memoir of his childhood, "Angela's Ashes," it's only recollections of the tough times that are worth telling. And even if only half of McCourt's recounting of his poor Irish Catholic childhood had occurred, it wouldn't have been much of a surprise had the author become a criminal, low-life, or generally disturbed individual.

Instead, the teacher turned novelist - who seems relatively well adjusted for what he endured - delivered a moving and compassionate recounting of his childhood that became a best seller after being released in 1996. Although I haven't had the pleasure of reading the work, it's been said that it's one of those novels that would be difficult or near impossible to translate into a motion picture.

While I can't contest the validity of that point or how the picture compares to the source novel, I can state that the film - at least to those unfamiliar with and thus not biased toward the book - is well made and surprisingly quite enjoyable. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and containing just the right mixture of humor and pathos, the film may not always completely connect on an emotional level with each and every viewer, but it does come close and is certainly fascinating and often rather entertaining to watch, even taking into account the tragedy and blight permeating the proceedings.

Although some may believe the film to be a depressing downer - and there's plenty of reason and accompanying material to come to such an initial impression - writer/director Alan Parker ("Evita," "The Commitments") and co-screenwriter Laura Jones ("The Portrait of a Lady," "Oscar and Lucinda") have apparently captured much of McCourt's wonderful use of humor to ease the pain and suffering.

Following the coming of age experiences of the film's young protagonist - portraying McCourt - we're treated to often funny and entertaining bits about the boy's dealings with his family, the natural curiosity about the opposite sex, and - best of all - his involvement and reactions to the Catholic church and - to him - its mysterious ways.

While some may not like the fact that there's an adult narrator (Andrew Bennett) who's replaced the voice of the boy from the book, or the fact that we're told many things instead of being shown them - the latter being a technique that I occasionally find abhorrent - I didn't have a problem with either as they're presented here.

Nor can many complaints be lodged against the film's technical merits. Rarely have utter poverty and bad weather looked more glorious and one can thank both cinematographer Michael Seresin ("Mercury Rising," "Midnight Express") and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland ("Mississippi Burning," "The Right Stuff") for creating and capturing just the right look and appropriate mood for the production. Adding a moving score by Oscar winning composer John Williams ("Saving Private Ryan," "Raiders of the Lost Ark") and the film excels on all technical levels.

Of course, for a film like this to work, the performances have to match, if not exceed, their surroundings and Parker - who previously excelled at that in his other look at poor Irish life in "The Commitments" - elicits wonderful performances from his entire cast.

Although accomplished actress Emily Watson ("Cradle Will Rock," "Hilary and Jackie") gets the unenviable task of embodying the depressed and downtrodden mother, she does a tremendous job in creating an entirely believable and sympathetic character.

Portraying the alcoholic lout of a father, Robert Carlyle ("The Full Monty," "Trainspotting") creates a fascinating character who simultaneously manages to evoke feelings of disdain and sympathy. Just as many family members in real-life situations manage to like or love similarly flawed relatives, Carlyle somehow manages to get the audience to still like him - at least to some degree - despite what he repeatedly does to his family.

The real stars of the show, however, are the three young actors -- Joe Breen (making his film debut), Ciaran Owens ("Agnes Brown," TV's "Eureka Street") and Michael Legge ("Stray Dogs," "Soft Sand, Blue Sea") - who play the protagonist over a number of years. Each brings their own unique style to the character, but the eventual progression from one to the next - while at first a bit jarring simply due to the jump in age and the fact that we get used to the character in each succeeding state - feels natural and believable.

Supporting characters and the performances from those embodying them - while often fleeting and/or occasionally not as fleshed out as one might like - are generally decent. Pauline McLynn (TV's "Dark Ages") makes a good impression as the family's aunt and Ronnie Masterson ("Fools of Fortune") gets some funny bits as the grandmother who blames everything on Protestants and believes God is in her backyard after Frank throws up his first communion there.

While the film and its often darker look at life probably won't appeal to everyone, and may not please fans of the McCourt's original novel - despite the author himself giving the filmed adaptation his own "thumbs up" - I found it constantly intriguing and gorgeously crafted, with solid performances and just the right mixture of laughs and tragedy. Although it didn't always tremendously affect me on an emotional level as I expected it might, the film's overall proceedings are still moving, always interesting and certainly entertaining enough to warrant high marks. As such, "Angela's Ashes" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed January 12, 2000 / Posted January 21, 2000

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