ANGELA’S ASHES. (1999) BASED ON THE PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING MEMOIR BY FRANK MCCOURT. DIRECTED BY ALAN PARKER.
STARRING EMILY WATSON, ROBERT CARLYLE, RONNIE MASTERSON, JOE BREEN, CIARAN OWENS, MICHAEL LEGGE, GERALD (FATHER TODD UNCTUOUS) MCSORLEY AND PAULINE (MRS. DOYLE) MCLYNN.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘A man who would drink the money for the new baby was beyond the beyonds.’
Fancying a good miserable time for myself on Easter Sunday night, after the chickens had been cooked and eaten and the crème eggs devoured, I put on ANGELA’S ASHES. This is one of the few Irish films I can stomach, as some of the rest of them are just too annoying or, quite frankly, not as good as their English or American counterparts. As I’m Irish myself, I’m allowed to say that, lol.
ANGELA’S ASHES is quite simply one of the best films ever made about the Miserable Irish Catholic Childhood, and fair play to author and school-teacher Frank McCourt (1930-2009) for turning his grim beginnings into a multi-million selling book and movie. Talk about making lemonade when life hands you lemons. That’s how you do it, Frankie lad, and more power to your elbow.
Anyway, if Frank McCourt is the hero of his own story, then the heroine must surely be his mother Angela, who put up with so much misery and poverty in her lifetime. Married to a feckless drinking man from the North of Ireland called Malachy McCourt (played by Robert Carlyle), her lot is to have and lose baby after baby (because of the high infant mortality rate for the poor of Limerick’s slums in the 1930s and 1940s) and to be barely able to feed the living ones because they have no money.
We first meet the family in America. They’ve emigrated there presumably to make a better life for themselves, but have to return to Angela’s family in Limerick when the Big Apple turns rotten and worm-infested for them. ‘We must have been the only family in living memory to be sailing AWAY from the Statue of Liberty,’ observes Frank the narrator ironically.
Limerick’s slums are already chock-full of desperately poor families. Frank and his brothers get mocked and taunted in school for wearing broken boots patched with the rubber from a bicycle tire. The family’s furniture comes from the St. Vincent De Paul Society, on the condition, seemingly, that they consent to being insulted and publicly demeaned by the members of the committee while queuing up to beg for it.
Dad is permanently out of work and, on the rare occasions when he’s in work, he drinks the wages and then loses the job for turning up late or not at all. Angela refers to him repeatedly as a ‘useless feck,’ and she’s not wrong there. Robert Carlyle’s character makes me so angry.
His sole contribution to the family seems to be getting Angela pregnant repeatedly, filling his sons’ heads with fairy stories he remembers from his childhood and drinking away every penny he ever gets his hands on, coming home pissed and incontinent offering his children ‘a penny to die for Ireland.’ When he conks out one night with his stupid selfish head practically in the piss-bucket on the landing, you can’t help feeling that he’s found his natural milieu.
Oh yes, he’s big on songs about the bould brave Fenian men and he boasts about having fought for Ireland during the War of Independence but, wouldn’t you know it, there’s no record of his ever having done military service so he’s not entitled to any pension.
He just makes me so mad. He has ‘loser’ and ‘sponger’ written all over him. He castigates Angela for going begging to the St. Vincent De Paul people or picking up coal off the street where it’s dropped off the coal-man’s cart (‘Have you no pride, Angela?’), but I don’t see him bringing in a wage for food and clothes for the kids he’s actively helped to create.
It’s almost a relief when he buggers off for good, off down the wet, waterlogged lanes where the McCourts have their tenement-style dwelling, to take the boat to England and never be heard from again, as far as I know. Frankie, played by three different actors in the three stages of his development, is the man of the house now.
We see Frankie in school, on the one hand being subjected to savage physical discipline and, on the other, being introduced to the joys of reading, a love he never loses. We see him going to the Lyric cinema- when he has the price of admission, and sometimes when he hasn’t!- to watch Westerns and old UNIVERSAL horror movies such as THE MUMMY, starring Boris Karloff. ‘He’s sticking his knife into that nice lady’s belly…!’
Frankie makes his First Holy Communion, for which he has to have his badly-behaved, sticky-up Protestant hair flattened down by his Granny’s spit, and his Confirmation. He develops typhoid and spends two months in hospital. He gets his first ever job as a coal-man’s apprentice, but has to jack it in because his eyes become super-irritated by the coal dust.
He works for the Post Office as a telegram boy and enjoys as a result his first ever sexual experience with a girl. He’s long since learned the forbidden art of ‘self-abuse,’ even though he knows full well that it makes the Virgin Mary cry.
He works for the local moneylender as a writer of threatening letters- one of the highlights being when he throws her ledger in the ocean- and every penny he makes, he puts into a Post Office Savings Account, otherwise known as his Going To America fund. Yes, that’s right. All wee Frankie McCourt wants to do is get back to the land of promise and plenty some day, where everyone has perfect teeth and a lavatory of their own. Oh joy unconfined, lol.
How can he bear to part with the rain, the misery, the hunger, the grinding poverty and the awful knowledge that his mother has to sexually satisfy her horrible cousin Laman Griffin if she wants to keep a roof over her childrens’ heads? Ah well. It’s a free country. Or maybe not…
There’s a brilliant jaunty soundtrack of ‘Thirties and ‘Forties music, lots of stunning rural scenes to ogle, and the cast is dotted with familiar faces from other Irish films and Irish soap operas, namely the now defunct rural soap GLENROE and on-going urban soap FAIR CITY.
It’s like playing ‘Spot the minor Irish celeb…!’ Oh look, it’s your man from… And wasn’t your one in…? And there’s what’s-her-name from that thing, oh, you know the thing I mean, it was on last August Bank Holiday…!
The main person you’ll recognise should be Pauline McGlynn, aka Mrs. Doyle from clerical sitcom FATHER TED, as Frankie’s Aunty Aggie, Angela’s childless older sister. You can tell she has a heart of gold underneath the cranky, crabby exterior. Although she doesn’t once try to give anyone tea…
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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