Movie Magazine International

Angela's Ashes

Ireland/USA - 1999

Movie Review By Casey McCabe

One thing that often irks me is hearing people coming out of a movie sniffing "well it wasn't as good as the book." I mean, please, they are two different animals, after all. Were they honestly expecting a picture to be worth a hundred thousand words? I say hey, be fair. Judge it by the given medium. You know…how was the FILM?

That being said, the new movie "Angela's Ashes," based on the wildly successful memoir by Frank McCourt…is not as good as the book.

It's not that Alan Parker's film paled before the images I'd already conjured. No. In fact the streets of Limerick and the McCourt's various abodes were stunningly identical to the way I'd envisioned them. In the film you can almost taste the rancid pork, smell the fetid chamber pots, shiver from the cold stone walls and feel the combined weight of growing up poor and Irish and Catholic.

I would never dream of calling Emily Watson anything less than perfect as Angela, the long suffering mother. No real problem with Robert Carlyle in the thankless role of the incurable alcoholic father, the source of much of that suffering. The three young actors who portray Frank up to age 18 bear a notable lack of resemblance to one another, but that's not much of a quibble.

What's missing from this better than average film are the very things that made the book a triumph; wit and perspective. From the outside, where we are all extremely grateful to be viewing this story, we get to watch the tragedy and humiliation amass, knowing that relief is on the way because at least Frank McCourt is destined to escape and write his bestselling memoir. That's a great big ball of emotion that any competent director could hit out of the park…but only after dragging us awhile through the mud. In the book, McCourt somehow managed to make the mud taste sweet, inasmuch as mud was far preferable to say, broken glass. He avoided selling bleak the way many a victim-happy author might. The book was a remarkable lesson in youthful resilience, festering faith and the luxury of adult hindsight, allowing us to understand the coping mechanism that is Irish wit. The film is basically a lesson in survival, teaching us little we don't already know.

There's an old screenwriter's axiom that says don't tell when you can show. But the words, far more than the story, is the story of Angela's Ashes. I'm not trying to get all sniffy. I could slap myself for saying it, but if you've read the book, there's really no better place "Angela's Ashes," the movie, can take you. If you haven't read the book, then I guess you must be the one.

© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 01/19/00

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