Back in 1990, some years after Prizzi’s Honor won Anjelica Huston all kinds of accolades and publicity, I saw her for a minute, in person. I was standing on line at an American Express office in Cannes, during the Film Festival for which she was serving as an official jury member. She came in behind me, and stood on line like every other person there, chatting with a companion about some movie they’d just seen that afternoon. She was tall and striking, dressed in a stylishly unflashy black jacket and jeans: several of us turned to look at Huston, some discreetly, some not so, but she didn’t seemed to notice either way. For all her presence and it was considerable Huston was completely regular, by which I mean, she never called attention to herself, stepped ahead in the line, or asked for special service.
This two-minute memory has stayed with me for a long time, in part because Huston was so plainly different from most of the movie stars in town, so busy schmoozing and limousining and performing for the omnipresent cameras every second of every day. She seemed substantial, serene, and self-assured.
Anjelica Huston, Marion O'Dwyer, Ray Winstone, Arno Chevrier
You see this self-assurance in her movies. Whether playing the ghoulishly romantic Morticia Addams, the desperately unhappy Gretta Conroy (heroine of The Dead), or Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo Bills-obsessed mother in Buffalo 66, Huston conveys a kind of dignity that eludes most movie stars. In her latest film, Agnes Browne, which she has also directed, Huston plays the title character, a mother of seven in Dublin 1967. Written by John Goldsmith and Brendan O’Carroll, and based on O’Carroll’s best selling novel, the movie is an ode to working-class stoicism and female endurance. Unlike Angela’s Ashes, which covers similar narrative ground (poor Irish widow overcomes unbelievable odds to raise her kids), Huston’s film is unabashedly corny, embracing all that mushy stuff that cool, cutting edge movies can’t be bothered with.
Agnes Browne opens as she and her best friend Marion (Marion O’Dwyer) try to file for Agnes’s widow’s pension just hours after her husband’s death. While the clerk at the pension office is startled and a bit offended by Agnes’s apparent haste, it soon becomes clear that Agnes is just being as painfully practical as she needs to be: she has to pay for the dead man’s funeral, feed the kids, and pay for her daughter’s (Roxanna Williams) communion, costs which the meager proceeds from her fruit-and-vegetable stand won’t begin cover. When she has to borrow cash from a local loanshark, Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone), Agnes refuses to be tractable or properly deferential. Her fellow vendors applaud her pluck, but of course, Mr. Billy then has it in for her (since you can’t have rabble-rousers acting up in front of an audience).
Such films the difficult life of a single mother, set during historical periods or not are becoming a bit of a subgenre, which means that there are certain predictable plot and character points to be touched. Here, Agnes works hard to pay back the loan, while running into family problems that threaten to derail her efforts and enhance her admirability quotient. Agnes must deal with her fatherless pre-teen sons (sober Mark [Niall O’Shea] has hairs growing on his “willy”; red-headed firebrand Frankie [Ciaran Owens] is smoking cigarettes and gambling on street corners instead of going to school), as well as the younger kids, who, for all their fine patience and faith in their mammy, are increasingly needing attention, for which she has precious little energy at the end of her long days.
Though she steals a few moments to go drinking with Marion and have one date with a solicitous French baker named Pierre (Arno Chevrier), the bulk of her time is spent dealing with crises, full blown and minor. By the time Marion is diagnosed with breast cancer, you have to wonder what else might go wrong. Agnes has a good sense of her life’s limitations: she loves her kids and her most fervent and immediate dream is to see Tom Jones in concert, who happens to be coming to town for one night only. (Given that he’s listed in the film’s credits, you might imagine the broad outlines of how this part of the plot turns out.)
The best parts of the film have little to do with plot: they are all about Agnes and Marion. You see them smoking cigarette after cigarette (though I suppose a link might be found here to Marion’s illness…); laughing uncontrollably when they find that their stick-up-his-ass-looking driving instructor is named not Dick as they suppose, but… O’Toole; or discuss the possibility that one might actually have an “organism” during sex with a husband. The friends share everything, from their joy and frustration to their stubbornness and saintliness. Everyone around them suitors, gangsters, kids, dead husbands is just window dressing, a way to develop the women’s relationship, which is defined by their giddy joking as by Agnes’s penury or Marion’s cancer.
And so, the most important question raised by Agnes Browne might be, just how does a film like this what you might call literate melodrama get made at a time when moveable product is all the rage? It’s clear that the film has a certain “adult” aspect, meaning that viewers, as well as distributors and advertisers, might appreciate that this is not a film made with fast-consuming teenagers in mind. At the same time, it also makes assumptions about what “women” (as in, those who go to see “women’s pictures,” to use that quaint mid-century term) want to see, much as the Lifetime Channel might make assumptions: Women want to see misery and survival? Women want to see triumph over adversity? Women want to see smart women and foolish men? Women want to see children appreciate their mothers? Women want to see Prince Charmings, even if they are self-consciously silly as hell?
Despite and because of its reductive fairy-tale-ish finale, Agnes Browne is slightly less didactic than other recent single mom pictures (for high-profile instances, Tumbleweeds, Anywhere But Here, Anna and the King, in which strong-willed women learn to be humble from their kids or kid-like companions). Agnes learns humility from her best friend, or rather, they learn together. Moreover, the sheer excessiveness of Agnes Meeting Tom Jones is so ridiculous that it both undermines and underlines the previous hardships, and gives the lie to melodramatic conventions per se, those society-sustaining conventions which suggest that women need men, institution-sanctioned monogamy, or community approbation to be happy. Agnes Browne does suggest these things, but in a way that makes them secondary to what makes Agnes admirable or, as played by Huston, self-assured.