The Irish have a long and proud history of storytelling, from earliest mythologies such as the heroic tales of Cú Chulainn and the Fenian and Ulster Cycles to the more modern writings of James Joyce and poet Seamus Heaney.
Here in the United States, readers embraced Frank McCourt's 1996 memoir of his poverty-stricken childhood, "Angela's Ashes," and turned it into a best seller.
Now screenwriter Laura Jones ("The Portrait of a Lady") and director Alan Parker ("Evita") have collaborated on turning McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography into a feature film. As with any book-to-movie adaptation, certain things are improved and certain things are lost.
The film opens with the now familiar lines from the book intoned by an unseen narrator: "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." This quote captures exactly what most found so engaging in McCourt's writing: his wonderful use of language tempered with a sense of humor.
Because the book is written in first person, the reader comes to know McCourt well and sees the world and the other characters through his eyes. What is lost in this version of "Angela's Ashes" is the tone of McCourt's writing. Yes, several of the incidents are there and many are depicted with a dry sense of humor, but because they are being acted out, something gets lost.
On the other hand, the filmmakers have managed to take an anecdotal work and shape it into a film with a particular story arc. Despite the presence of high-profile actors Emily Watson (who actually seems miscast) and Robert Carlyle (who does a superlative job as an alcoholic wastrel), the focus of both the book and the film is Frank.
Parker has three actors to play the lead at various stages, a venture that is sometimes risky. In this case, however, he and the casting directors, John and Ros Hubbard and Juliet Taylor, have found three young actors who believably embody Frank at the various stages of his life. Joseph Breen, age 8 at the time of filming (and whose face adorns the posters), is perfect. With his serious demeanor, this farmer's son with no performing experience sets the tone of the character that is picked up and expanded on by his successors in the role, teen-ager Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge. The three shoulder the burden of carrying the film and do so quite well.
Michael Seresin's cinematography bathes the film in blue-green tones, mostly as much of the action occurs while it is raining. Ironically, the filmmakers had to re-create the poverty-stricken lanes of Limerick, and much credit goes to production designer Geoffrey Kirkland for the look of the film. John Williams musical score is appropriate and perfectly complements the action.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexual content and some language.
Emily Watson: Angela McCourt
Robert Carlyle: Malachy McCourt Sr.
Joe Breen: Young Frank
Ciaran Owens: Middle Frank
Michael Legge: Older Frank
A Paramount presentation. Director Alan Parker. Screenplay Laura Jones and Alan Parker. Novel Frank McCourt. Producers Scott Rudin, David Brown and Alan Parker. Director of photography Michael Seresin. Editor Gerry Hambling. Music John Williams. Production designer Geoffrey Kirkland. Costume designer Consolata Boyle. Art directors Jonathan McKinstry and Fiona Daly. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.