- Did I enjoy it: Mildly.
- Did it move me: Mildly.
- Rewatch: Unlikely.
- Art/Pop: Pop that wants to look classic.
I approached the film version of Angela’s Ashes with a sense of excitement and optimism when I noticed that it had been directed by Alan Parker. Parker’s The Commitments has a unique ability to provide me with LSD level flashbacks to my year spent studying in Ireland at the end of the 1980s.
The film, however, disappointed. While there were moments that were good, they felt rare. I feared in watching I was suffering from book syndrome, or what I sometimes call “Dead Zone” syndrome. When I was young and there was a film version made of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (dir. Cronenberg with Chris Walken in the lead), I re-read the book right before seeing the movie, and then hated it for all its edits and cuts. When, ten years or so later, I watched the film again, I thought it was far better, as I could watch it as its own thing.
I had literally just finished reading Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s acclaimed and semi-autobiographical Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel, a mere week or two before watching the the film, and I noticed from the start that the first several chapters were compressed into the first few minutes.
I am older now, though, and I understand that sacrifices like that are part and parcel of translating a decent sized book to the big screen, so I anticipated the focus on the later years of McCourt’s young life. Such never really seemed to occur, however, and the film felt like it merely glided over or paid lip service to many of the rich stories and moments. Perhaps too much of the resonance of the story is from the feeling you are living through all the little details, something difficult to capture without the time provided by a more extended format, such as a mini-series. Too many small but meaningful relationships, such as the one developed with the coal deliverer the main character gets a job assisting, and eventually his widow, that get lost in the need to cover the whole story in two & 1/2 hours.
Furthermore, and more critically, it did not seem to communicate the true desperation and poverty of their lives. It tries to, and almost feels to capture this best in the opening scenes in NY (rather ironically, as that time is often looked upon in the novel as the time of plenty), but it never fully commits. I mean, the settings look reasonably accurate enough, but you just don’t feel it like you do in the novel, which I find odd given the potential power of a visual medium.
In McCourt’s father, I think this is demonstrated the clearest. I had a poor opinion of the elder Malaki (McCourt’s younger brother shares the name with the father) from the start of the novel, but he is a far more sympathetic character throughout much of the movie. It is only near his departure that his behavior becomes reprehensible. This could be because the film does not have the space to establish the depth of failure after failure, and shortcoming after shortcoming, but it could have if Parker wanted it to, with some clever filming and editing. It almost feels as if Parker wants to avoid the portrayal of Malaki as the cliche drunk Irish ne’er-do-well that McCourt himself portrays Malaki as in great detail in the novel, and instead tries to rehabilitate him somewhat. To what end, I cannot say, as it adds nothing to, and actually detracts from, the experience.
And there is the actors and the costuming. Robert Carlyle as Malaki and especially Emily Watson as the eponymous Angela cut handsome figures even in Hollywood poor people clothes. I’ll never forget the sense in the book of Angela looking what we would guess was 50 when she was in her late 20s, with rotted yellow teeth, tired and worn from (at least) 6 births, smoking like a chimney and living in abject poverty. Even at the end of the film, made up to look older, Watson seemingly cannot but be a beautiful woman.
Parker is a seasoned professional, and Angela’s Ashes is a watchable film that has it’s occasional moments. But it is not great, and it is not even really good.
Review Date: 12/08/2018