The Happy Childhood Is Hardly Worth Telling: Angela's Ashes (1999)

The adaptation of Frank McCourt's memoir in all its high sentimentalism and Irish charm would have been a standout hit and well-received classic were it to come out any other year but 1999.  As many podcasts and bloggers have noted before me, 1999 has proven to be a standout film for contemporary cinema evidenced by the seemingly unstoppable amount of great, if not, at the very least, unique and important works.  In its two and a half hour undertaking, Angela's Ashes is an absolutely watchable film that has some true moments of heart-wrenching honesty and all around great performances, and given that I often see copies of McCourt's novel at second hand book stores, it is clear that it at one time or another was a widely acclaimed and read book, however, I am also aware that the heavy handedness of the text and subsequent sentimentalizing nature of the film are exploitative in their nature.  For the moments in the film that chronicle the emergence of first love, it is also important to note that these evolutions too come with loss and the film is never sure what to make of the ebb and flow of such natural occurrences, resulting in a linear narrative that manages to fail in its climactic structure.  Of course, I am hardly a person who advocates for such straight forward methodologies when concerning filmmaking, but the particular stylistic choices of McCourt's memoir and the directorial nature of Alan Parker.  The suffering Irish family is a trope culturally at this point and it is simply a matter of how committed the director or author are to the subject as to its success and Angela's Ashes is far from being as intense as My Left Foot.  I do, however, want to make it expressly clear that I am not against Angela's Ashes, I get the narrative it is trying to create and the methods it uses are certainly executed to the highest degree, but given that it was released relativley recently it is hard to embrace it for anything than traditional, deciding to play into the highly stylized romanticizing of poverty and suffering that would be blown into excess a year earlier with Titanic and as witty and energizing as the narrator's coming of age tale proves to be, it is simply not enough to justify its extended runtime and general lack of narrative evolution as characters move from point A to point B, only to realize that point A was the desired location after all.

Angela's Ashes, despite its suggestive name, actually focuses on the childhood and young adult experiences of Frankie McCourt, who is played by a handful of actors in this film since he ages throughout the lengthy temporal narrative.  Regardless, the story begins with Frank as a child and the realization of death when his parents Malachy (Robert Carlyle) and mother Angela (Emily Watson) suffer from the loss of a child due to it being born in the winter in their impoverished living conditions.  This sad misfortune begins the process of them moving from America back to Ireland, the exact opposite of what many were doing at the height of the Depression in both countries.  Upon arrival in the religiously and politically divided country Frank realizes the true powers of stereotyping as he is mocked by his classmates for being a "yank," as well for having a father who is lazy and from the North.  Nonetheless, Frank and his brothers are strong-willed children and they manage to survive even though their father hardly works, and when he does the money he earns is quickly wasted at the local pub.  Frank seems always keenly aware of these tragic actions on the part of his father and continually strives to make a path for himself in the world, while also attempting to earn money for his family, particularly his suffering mother.  Yet, when it becomes quite clear that their only means for survival is to completely remove their father from the live and work as live-in servants to a wealthy bachelor, Frank begins to question his place in the family, becoming quite critical of the discovery that his mother is providing sexual favors to the man for money, and finally moves out when he discovers that she would rather side with the man than her own son for the sake of economic safety.  Frank moves out on his own and finds work as a telegraph courier, which leads to his first sexual encounter with a young woman dying of tuberculosis, which gives him his last push into adulthood via an awakening to lust and death near simultaneously.  After a large sum of money falls in his way, Frank seizes the opportunity to truly begin his life in the only fashion he knows how, by moving back to America, although in the name of narrative closure it is suggested that he returns fondly upon all of the moments of his young life.

It is perhaps this emphasis on fondness that makes the film slightly more frustrating than rewarding, and I realize this is somewhat absurd coming from me, a person who loves when films take leaps and go against the grain of traditionalism.  However, in regards to Angela's Ashes the issue emerges when McCourt's text is vaguely adapted to make negative characters seems sanctimonious or something other than terrible.  Obviously the example I am referring to is Frank's father, Malachy who spends nearly all of his screen time drunk.  Of course, as children Frank and his brothers are less likely to pick up on these problems, and instead; embrace his more light-hearted paternal moments, which would be fine if the film also did not seem content with this methodology.  The fact of the matter is that Malachy is blowing his earnings on booze while allowing his children to go hungry and even worse for his wife to be so malnourished that when she gives birth it results in sick babies who die within hours or days of arriving into the world.  At no point is this truly challenged, sure Angela kicks Malachy out of the house and society seems intent on chastising Malachy, but it is so much more entrenched in his Northernness than in his alcoholism.  I must confess that I have not read the book so I am uncertain as to how Malachy is depicted in the context of the memoir, but it seems as though any attempts at defending his near atrocities should be undercut by the realities, something that the film manages to avoid on a regular basis.  While Malachy's character is the biggest problem of the film it is certainly not the only vague depiction of oppression, the film seems to have a unbalanced and wavering depiction of many of the institutions of the era, particularly the charity based organizations of the government and the Catholic church, as well as the role teachers played in Frank's upbringing.  I am not suggesting that Frank McCourt did not find success without a strong sense of self-worth and determination, but the film is a bit too self-aware about his post experience introspection to see where he was aided and hindered as a child, which causes the films sentimental nature to be more misguided than endearing.

Key Scene:  When Frank begins his affair with the young woman with "consumption" it is one of the few moments of absolute narrative and cinematic cohesion and it is hard not to get emotive at its beautiful depiction of loss of innocence.  If only this film were that consistent throughout it may well have been one of the highlights of a year of excellent film.

Angela's Ashes is not a bad movie, in fact, it is quite good.  My issue arise with some of its obtuse moral statements and considering that it is rather expensive on DVD, I cannot suggest you go out of your way to see it in the near future.

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