Angela's Ashes

8 out of 10


Autobiography of a Plastic Paddy

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

From the land of the infamous potato famine and a country that has populated much of the globe with hopeful immigrants, "Angela`s Ashes," based on the memoirs of retired inner city English teacher Frank McCourt, is easily one of the most memorable and awaited films of 1999.

Like many cultures who are fiercely proud, the Irish have the term "Plastic Paddy" for those who, although Irish in all other senses, were born outside the country. Although raised in Ireland and with a true gift for storytelling, Frank McCourt may unfairly be considered so by technicality but it cannot be contested that he is very much Irish in spirit. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 to Malachy and Angela McCourt, Irish immigrants from County Antrim and who met in New York City, McCourt began to write his life's story following his service in WWII and many years of reciting it to his pupils and fellow bar mates. One would think a story so filled with tragedy would not be pleasant reading or viewing but in the hands of McCourt and British director Alan Parker, "Angela's Ashes" is more a tale of hope, humour and strength and is a uplifting portrayal of a childhood during a time when much was changing in both Ireland and America.

Based on the book of the same name, "Angela's Ashes" centers around on McCourt's childhood in Brooklyn and Limerick and finishes with his teenage years before his return at age 16 to begin a life of his own in the US. In 1935 when the McCourts find themselves no better off than at home, with the sudden loss of their infant daughter, they return to Ireland with he and his brothers in tow. Feeling as if he was part of the only Irish family who had ever seen the Statue of Liberty disappearing from view, young Frank finds himself returning to an even more cruel environment, filled with a previously unexperienced sense of the oppression from the Catholic Church and stigmatism of relatives and neighbours. With a moments seeming almost from a Paddy Doyle novel, McCourt goes though many of the typical rites of passage and trials and tribulations of growing up in turn-of-the-century Ireland. In his most tragic moments, witnessing the deaths of many of his siblings from starvation, and suffering himself from malnutition, typhoid fever and conjunctivitus, Frank still manages to struggle through school, his first confession and communion with his "North of Ireland hair," and goes on to discover the joys of Shakespeare and a sense of independence as first a coal and then post office delivery boy. Always throughout his life, he is torn between the love of his family and hoping to be transported away from a life where he and his brothers are frequently abandoned by their father and his home which is a leaking hovel near the Shannon. A dark and sad story but also funny, it has inspired moments including Frank's first love, his first drink and most of all his close relationship with his well meaning but unreliable father and brothers Malachy , even through the most terrible moments of poverty and suffering.

For anyone who has read the book or the follow-up "'Tis," the award winning Parker (known for "The Commitments," "Road to Wellville" and "Pink Floyd's The Wall") has succeeded in an impressive and accurate, if grimy, recreation of Limerick and has poigniantly captured the spirit of McCourt's story. Backed by a moving score by John Williams ("Star Wars," "The Patriot") and containing both beautiful Irish scenery and an intense and stark quality similar to "Schindler's List," due to colour removal during film processing, the foreboding landscape of Limerick and dark gutter in which the McCourts reside (a set built to match family photographs) seems even more sombre and ominous and the families fragile existance becomes even more prominant. Fresh from "Breaking the Waves" and "Hilary and Jackie," Emily Watson is perfect as Frank's mother Angela as are Irish soap drama "Ballykissangel" 's Ciaran Owen and newcomers Michael Legge and Joe Breen in the various ages of Frank. Although at times the storyline is simplistic, omitting much of McCourt's commentary which made the books such a success, it is still a harrowing and moving portrayal of the hardships of his life.

In the recent decades, much has changed in Ireland. With the onset of the "Celtic Tiger" and perhaps because of the desire to look forward with a quaint "cottagy" view of the past, the release of the motion picture and the book created a scandal throughout the country and certainly within Limerick itself. Many felt that McCourt had exaggerated his experiences and questioned his motives behind writing the novel, which was then followed by a slightly more apologetic but much more risque version of the McCourt's family story by his brother Malachy. He is often mentioned in Limerick newspapers, including the Limerick Leader by his strongest critic Gerard Hannan, who followed both novels with those of his own, including "Ashes," about the history of the city. Apparently, although the Irish have a sense of humour in times of misery, they don't when reminded of suffering and when the tourism dollars are at stake. Even through all the controversy, it remains justifiably a best seller and the picture itself was nominated for an Oscar and won several awards including an Irish Film and Television Award for costume design and best feature film. McCourt has gone on to write a third book concentrating on his thirty years as a teacher and has rentered the realms of film, playing Mr.Lennihan in Michael McCarty's film "Beautiful Kid."

A haunting and memorable picture, although not as humourous as the novel, "Angela's Ashes" can easily stand on it's own and is a treat for anyone who is a fan of Alan Parker, Frank McCourt or has an interest in Irish history or culture.

Burning with Irish passion

Film Critic: Jenny M Lillies