It’s the 1930s and Frankie McCourt (played by Joe Breen) is five years old. His family has recently come to New York from Ireland to escape the poverty and find a new life. But things in America are not quite as easy as Frankie’s father Malachy (by Robert Carlyle) and mother Angela (by Emily Watson) had hoped – jobs are hard to come by, food is scarce and there is no money at all. So they reluctantly return to Limerick, knowing the hardship they will face there too. Malachy is Irish, but he is from Belfast in “the North”, so Angela’s family, particularly her mother Grandma Sheehan (by Ronnie Masterson) and her sister Aggie (by Pauline McLynn) never accept him into their lives, constantly belittling him directly and referring to him as “dirty, good-for-nothing and stupid”. Angela is loyal to Malachy, but he can’t hold down a job and finds a good friend in alcohol. Any money that comes Malachy’s way gets spent on beer long before Angela or the children see it, so the family survive on charity and handouts. Life in the slums is depressing, filthy, damp and utterly soul-destroying. To add to this, Frankie’s childhood is punctuated with trauma and sadness as the “consumption” claims his siblings one after the other. As a schoolboy, Frankie (by Ciaran Owens) sees his much-adored father rely more and more heavily on drinking and he becomes more and more of a disappointment to the entire family – but in the face of this Angela tries as best she can to keep them together. As he grows into a teenager, Frankie (by Michael Legge) meets Theresa (by Kerry Condon) and learns about girls, love and the real ways of the world. This drives his ambition to leave the gloom and sadness of the slums and make a new start in America.
This is a dramatization of Frank McCourt`s best-selling autobiography “Angela’s Ashes”. It beautifully tells Frankie’s stories with schoolboy candour, grim honesty and wry humour – but it’s pretty long and there is enough content here to make a television series. Performances are very good – particularly Robert Carlyle as the curious Malachy – I never quite understand why he’s not more motivated to do better in his life; and Emily Watson – she is very good as Angela, worn down by the endless disappointments in her life, but driven by her love for her children. The three males who play Frankie at each age are very strong, ably supported by the three who play his brother Malachy Jr (Shane Murray-Corcoran, Devon Murray and Peter Halpin) – they are great and the work of all the children is excellent for people so young. For me though, whilst the drama is well told, the emotion in the piece misses the mark. This is really just like any television family drama – and I am not even clear why the biography is called “Angela’s Ashes” – did I miss something? Angela is not dead at any stage throughout the movie … perhaps it is an obtuse reference to the tradition of Catholic Lent, Ash Wednesday … I am not sure, I’d say wait for it on television.
Made in 1999. Directed by Alan Parker.