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Angela's Ashes  
More Than A Bad Movie Almost A Racial Slur

In Tennessee they write country songs where everybody catches fatal diseases, or gets murdered or divorced and in the end the dog dies. From Ireland we bring you Angela’s Ashes - Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Frank McCourt’s prize-winning book.

By the time the hero's third sibling bites the dust maybe 30 minutes in (or was that days?) you'll be rolling your eyes to the ceiling and praying he's next and it will all soon be over. It won't.

It takes Parker two and a half hours to tell a story that could be transported to Nashville and summed up by Tammy Wynette in under 4 minutes. The setting is Limerick in Ireland in the 30s and 40s. The theme is misery - McCourt’s but more particularly the audience’s - endlessly sign-posted by absolutely unrelenting and unrealistic movie-rain. The plot - and I use the term in it’s loosest possible sense - basically with little variation revolves around: child dies, dad gets drunk, child is born, dad gets drunk, repeat absolutely ad nauseum.
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Nor are we ever given any chance to appreciate how Frank McCourt senior (Robert Carlyle) transforms with regularity from the loving story-telling dad bouncing children on his knee into the kind of man who would spend money sent for a new baby on booze, and then changes back again the following morning. His solitary drinking adventures are never shown as anything more than pathetic - he stumbles in, singing rebel songs, to the family hovel in the early hours, tripping over buckets of piss. It’s as if we’re told - "well you saw the children die, who wouldn’t go and get drunk?" But shouldn't a fine actor like Carlyle actually be able to convey some of the inner torment that must have driven this despairing cycle.

After all Mrs McCourt (Emily Watson) loses the children as well but manages to be stoical throughout. And after all there have always been grim stories and long-suffering heroes who would never once have failed a breathalyser test. How many of Dickens' heroes wound up as bathetic bar-flies? In the end the suspicion must be that it was felt unnecessary to convey any of these emotional complexities because - for the bulk of it’s audience - "he’s an Irishman so he gets drunk" was perhaps the only explanation required.

But I have to go back to the rain, which possibly overshadows young McCourt (played well by three Irish actors Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge) as the film’s central character. And the rain is a terrible scene-hogger, a laughable over-actor, more suited to vaudeville than the cinema screen. It is of a variety - incessant and pounding - that may occur in the occasional tropical storm but has never been witnessed in Ireland, at least since biblical times. And the weather throughout is presented in the same sunny light as Tim Burton’s Gotham in the first two Batman pictures. Only at the end when teenage McCourt sets off for America does the sun ever break through the clouds. Thanks for that, Alan - we, the people of Ireland, truly appreciate it.

What perhaps makes the whole thing so galling is that Parker has publicly defended lapses in historical accuracy in the story by insisting this is a memoir rather than strictly autobiographical. One second Alan, so what you’re saying is that this isn’t actually true? Because it occurs to me that if, for the sake of drama, you’re willing to excise a few facts, why not go the whole hog and excise enough to make it interesting or even - God forbid - entertaining?

I’m not suggesting a young-Frank-uncovers-pirates’-gold kind of sub-plot but do you think we could have had one dead brother less? A girlfriend who didn’t die of TB? Dad pops out for a pint with the lads but arrives back in time for dinner with Chinese takeaway for everyone? Any variety would be welcome in a film of this length but substantively there is none.

Angela’s Ashes premiered in Ireland but I must confess some bafflement on this point. After all, the whole grim confection was plainly cooked up for the audience abroad, perhaps primarily the kind of American who still believes the Irish live in thatched cottages and travel to work in the fields on a donkey or else stay in the pub all day drowning their tears.

The people of Limerick have in effect disowned McCourt and Parker for the way they have presented the city and native film star Richard Harris wrote a scathing attack on the pair in the UK’s Sunday Times. Although the irony of the inhabitants of the latter-day "knife-capital of Ireland" getting in a tizzy about the image of their city 60+ years ago may not have escaped everyone.

That Alan Parker is the same film-maker who brought us The Commitments, Angel Heart and even Bugsy Malone is more than a little depressing. This is simply a bad film. Well shot, competently acted but bad to the core. If Woody Allen writes love-letters to New York in his films, this is Parker and McCourt’s collaborative poison-pen dispatch to Ireland. Because this country for all it’s historical travails and miseries was never dull and Angela’s Ashes most assuredly and relentlessly is.

Brian O Conaill

The Z Review thinks this sounds like a complete shame, Alan Parker and Robert Carlyle are two people who we normally expect great things from at the cinema


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