Paramount // 1999 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 5th, 2000
Worse than a miserable childhood is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
Adapted from Frank McCourt's autobiographical, Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Angela's Ashes traces his terrible struggle to escape the grinding poverty of his childhood in 1930s Ireland. Caught somewhere between inspiring and merely depressing, Angela's Ashes is brought to disc by Paramount with a fine technical presentation and a commendable set of extra content.
The first thirty minutes or so of Angela's Ashes are very tough to watch, as they set the tone for the rest of the movie to come. Crushing poverty, appalling living conditions, tragic loss of young life, all come thick and furious upon the unwary viewer. If any movie could make "Oliver Twist" seem like a fairy tale by comparison, then this is it. The saving grace of this highly emotional opening is that you have not had the time to establish any emotional bond with the characters, so the tragic impact of the events is modestly attenuated.
The remainder of Angela's Ashes is not a light tale by any stretch of the imagination. How Frank McCourt can have such a nostalgic, nearly romantic memory of this time in his life may be a modern miracle. A cursory look at other comments and critical reviews of Angela's Ashes indicates that the original book upon which Angela's Ashes is based may have a much greater degree of humor and charm, so perhaps the answer is found on the page and not the screen.
The anamorphic video transfer is well-done, though whether it qualifies as pleasing depends on your tastes. In keeping with the grim story of tragedy and poverty, the film has a definite "look" that features a gritty, grainy picture with only modest use of color. The palette is very muted and earth-tone oriented, with Angela McCourt being a notable and presumably intentional exception. On the positive side as well are the absence of digital enhancement artifacts are absent, solid blacks, and a near absence of dirt and film defects (as you would expect from this recent a film).
The 5.1 audio mix is appropriate to the film, which means that it is not going to be peeling the paint off your walls. Still, it does a commendable job given the nature of Angela's Ashes. The sound is weighted to the front soundstage, though the rear surrounds are used for the occasional discrete sound effect and a fair amount of atmospheric fill. The subwoofer does provide some limited bass support, so it doesn't get the night off. The dialogue is crisp and clear and John Williams' (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Presumed Innocent) Oscar-nominated score is quite pleasing.
Particularly for a Paramount release (as I still long remember their earlier bare-bones attempts), Angela's Ashes has a fair collection of extra content. The interview featurette (16.5 min.) is the best of the two, with a limit on the PR fluff and mostly thoughtful comments on the substance of the film and characters. The longer "making-of" featurette (26.5 min.) is not that much different, but it has a lot more clips from the movie, a higher fluff quotient, and this one is more oriented to the on-set making of the film. Also included are the two Angela's Ashes trailers (teaser and theatrical), which are properly letterboxed and of good quality.
The best parts of the extra content are the two commentary tracks, one with director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments) and the other with author Frank McCourt. As one might expect, the former leans heavily towards the pre-production and day to day toils of making this motion picture, whereas the author tends to comments about his life and how well it has been translated to the big screen. These are both informative commentary tracks with a good quantity of insight, though the author's commentary does have quite a number of long pauses. I wish that studios would spend a little more money for a properly produced and edited commentary (such as Criterion usually does), so as to avoid this sort of trouble.
In New York City in 1935, when newborn Margaret Mary McCourt dies, her mother, Angela (Emily Watson) sinks into a deep depression and her father, Malachy (Robert Carlyle) disappears for several days. Going out for cigarettes he says, though you soon suspect he went out for something more liquid. In this terrible aftermath, the family has no alternative but to leave America and return in failure to Limerick, Ireland.
Life in Limerick is grim indeed. The rain and damp never seem to go away, nor do the fleas. Jobs are scarce and with many mouths to feed in the McCourt family, hunger is also a constant companion. Sickness and death are not far behind, either. Frank McCourt (Joe Breen) is witness to all of these travails and his own as he struggles to adapt to his new Irish home and school. While Angela struggles valiantly to care for her family's needs, Malachy wavers from lovable rogue to persistently lazy drunk, always ready with a quip or to down a pint, but never to provide for his family.
As he grows into his pre-teen years, Frank McCourt (Ciaran Owens) survives a scare with typhoid fever and during his recovery finds a whole new avenue of escape in the pleasures of literature. Once recovered, he tries to make up for his father's absence of support (which soon becomes an absence in fact as well as in practice) with his own after-school job delivering coal. Angela soon puts a stop to it, due both to the threat to his health and that she recognizes his mind will be his ticket out of the Limerick lanes, and so she encourages him in that regard.
The years go past until we find Frankie McCourt (Michael Legge) in his teen-age years. The reality of his family's poverty finally leaves no option but for Frankie to work, but this time he finds a far better job delivering telegrams for the Post Office. In addition to the significant monetary benefits, he finds his first romance in the tragic person of Theresa Carmody (Kerry Condon), a beautiful teenager slowly dying of consumption (tuberculosis). Slowly, very slowly, things get better for Frankie when he delivers a telegram to the local moneylender, Mrs. Finucane (Eileen Pollock). She is so taken with his talents that she hires him to write and deliver collection notices, which in turn allows Frankie to save funds sufficient for his dream -- a trip back to the promised land, America. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is likely to be a film to be seen once and only once. While Angela's Ashes is a compelling look at one man's triumph over very long odds, there is neither the humor, the drama, or the romance that would make me want to see it again. Neither does the acting in the major roles inspire a return visit, for aside from the well-chosen young actors who portray Frank McCourt and his brother Malachy Jr., I was nonplussed. Emily Watson (The Boxer, Hilary and Jackie) leaves her Angela McCourt a blank, long-suffering enigma. Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, Plunkett & Macleane, The World is Not Enough) does his bit, but he does not seem to have his heart in the role
For those very reasons, prospective audience members may wish to carefully consider investing the nearly two and a half hours of viewing time.
This is a film which clearly captures the emotional depth and reality of a time and a place, so if you can stand the terrible tragedies, you may find a rental worth your time, given that quite a lot of writing, acting, and directing talent went into making Angela's Ashes. Even if you are a fan of the book, I would recommend you try a rental before deciding whether a pricey purchase ($30 retail) is worth your money.
Angela's Ashes, after due deliberation, is acquitted, though not without some reluctance on the part of this Court. Paramount gives us a quality presentation and is so acquitted, though the Court does wonder when we might see a bona fide Paramount Special Edition?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailers
* Making-of Featurette
* Cast and Crew Interviews
* Director's Commentary
* Author's Commentary
* Official Site