Alan Parker faithfully adapts Frank McCourt’s best-selling memoir, but the movie lacks the power and wit of the author’s singular prose.

A Grim Limerick

Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood,” writes Frank McCourt in “Angela’s Ashes,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. “And worse yet,” he adds, “is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” As written and remembered by McCourt, his qualifies for the ultimate miserable, Irish Catholic childhood. The movie that Irish filmmaker Alan Parker has crafted from McCourt’s astonishingly popular best-seller about growing up in abject poverty will not offend any of the book’s fans. Then again, neither will it alienate anyone’s affections for the original. From the opening scene, it’s obvious that Parker and fellow screenwriter Laura Jones have a deep respect and cultural empathy for McCourt’s work and circumstances. Unafraid, they follow McCourt’s lead and pile on the almost stereotypical Irish woes — dying children; an alcoholic, irresponsible father (Robert Carlyle); a saintly mother (Emily Watson) forced to beg for crumbs from the priests’ table; and, a hunger so deep it follows a child into manhood. As adapted by Parker and Jones, “Angela’s Ashes” offers a succession of trials and tribulations endured by Frank McCourt (played at different ages by Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge). Like the book, the movie follows Frank’s family as it moves from 1930s America back to Ireland, where they discover they are just as out of place as they were in Brooklyn. Back in Limerick, his mother Angela’s family pours disdain on her feckless mate Malachy, a Northern Ireland Protestant and a craven alcoholic. The family’s living conditions — flea-ridden mattresses, having to live next to the town’s outhouse — are a testament to Malachy’s inability to spend money on anything but the drink. Again faithful to the book, this movie never paints Malachy as the villain. There’s no abuse or dysfunction in this family other than alcoholism. In fact, there’s a great deal of love and innate respect. Frank may be embarrassed by his poverty, but he never hates his parents for it. Despite lacking any narrative arc to speak of, Parker’s film manages to create a compelling momentum that leads us from one anecdote or painful remembrance to the next. However, seeing grinding poverty on the screen is a lot different from reading about it. Using muted shades of gray, “Angela’s Ashes” almost threatens to make poverty visually stunning. As Angela, Watson gives another authentic performance, even though she’s not called on to do much more than suffer and endure. Carlyle has the more difficult task, making us care about him despite his weaknesses. But this is really Frank’s story, despite the title, and Breen, Owens and Legge do a wonderful job taking us through their character’s transition from boy to man. As proof of the power of images, it is Breen’s face as young Frank that burns itself into memory. While reading his book, I never got a clear-cut image of McCourt. Now, when I think of Frank, it is the haunting face of Breen that I conjure. Although Parker and cast get the grim reality and heart of the story right, what they cannot capture on film is McCourt’s wonderful language. Despite using extensive voice-over narration, the movie never matches the elegance and wit of McCourt’s prose — it’s what made McCourt’s miserable childhood bearable. While the film is still a triumphant tale of the human spirit, without McCourt’s language, “Angela’s Ashes” lacks the story’s


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