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Review: Angela’s Ashes (1999)

Angela’s Ashes (1999)

Directed by: Alan Parker

Premise: An adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir, in which he recounts growing up in poverty in Limerick, Ireland.

What Works: When Hollywood makes movies about impoverished people they tend to sentimentalize life in the lower class. The poor are made out as beautiful souls whose lot in life is not really a burden but a blessing and their struggles, which are inevitably softened, are portrayed as either the path to sainthood or a test of integrity that rewards the exceptional and the hardworking by elevating them to a higher status. At their worst these movies are acts of economic tourism, offering up the lives of the poor as entertainment for the upper class and allowing the filmmaker and the audience a false sense of empathy. Understanding that exploitative tendency by Hollywood moviemakers is an important part of appreciating Angela’s Ashes. The picture has a reality that is very different from so many other stories like it. At no point does this look like a Hollywood production. The portrayal of poverty is unsparing; the struggle to survive is not glamorous or valiant and cruelty, whether it comes from authority figures or illness, is unrelenting. The sets, costumes, and performers have a weathered look and while this picture does not display a cinema verite style, the wet, muddy, and decaying locales have an authentic feel that puts the audience in the misery of Frank McCourt’s childhood. The portrayal of life in 1930s and 40s Ireland comes down to three elements: family, faith, and economics. These are familiar elements of any Horatio Alger-like story, whether set in Ireland or America, but Angela’s Ashes should not be conflated with other films. Each of those elements is given a robust and complicated treatment and they aren’t always the pillars keeping the poor aloft. McCourt’s family life is difficult and the portrayal of the relationship between the father (Robert Carlyle) and the young Frank McCourt is especially complicated. The father is not an abusive husband and he clearly loves his family but he is also an alcoholic and too prideful to ask for public assistance even while his family starves. This kind of complexity is indicative of the film’s treatment of faith and economics as well. The Irish Catholic religion is an important part of McCourt’s education and daily life but the movie points out the shortcomings of faith; it may provide a degree of solace and moral structure but it can’t fill an empty stomach. The same is true of the portrayal economics in Angela’s Ashes; life in Limerick is often a matter of survival but not nourishment. The family’s poverty is partly due to the father’s personal flaws but it is also impacted by outside circumstances and the filmmakers capture the way all of those variables conspire to keep the McCourts stuck in poverty. What Angela’s Ashes reveals, finally, is the soul crushing weight of just trying to get by in life. The picture is not entirely hopeless but the filmmakers do not pander to the audience with the empty reassurances that everything will be all right in the end. 

What Doesn’t: Like a lot of biographical tales, Angela’s Ashes is very episodic. The film unifies very nicely but it does suffer just a little from the lack of a single narrative through-line. This is most clearly seen in McCourt’s brief love affair with a young woman played by Kerry Condon. The storyline is nice but it is so abrupt that the impact of his loss is lessened. The film also uses narration quite a bit. This retains McCourt’s narrative voice from the book and it adds a lot of wit and perspective but it also spells out the action and overstates the obvious.

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: Angela’s Ashes is a challenging film in that it is so unrelentingly bleak but the despair is offset by intelligence and wit. The movie is admirable for its complexity and humanity but it’s also a fine piece of filmmaking.

Episode: #341 (March 17, 2013)