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Angela's Ashes

Director: Alan Parker
Cast: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge

(Paramount; 1999)

The Poetry of Poverty

It must be a daunting task to translate to film a book as enormously popular as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Inevitably, some devotees of McCourt’s memoir of growing up in Ireland, will walk away from the film disappointed, finding that some aspect of the original text has been left out or altered. Choices about what to leave in, what to add, and what to change must be difficult for the director and screenwriter to make, knowing as they do that each decision risks letting down or alienating some segment of the audience.


Angela’s Ashes director Alan Parker addresses this facet of the filmmaking process in his “production journal,” which is posted on the film’s official website (www.angelasashes.com). I stumbled on Parker’s journal accidentally as I browsed the website, and found it fascinating, not so much because of his rather obvious observation that directors have to make choices, but because his narrative reveals contexts for some of the particular choices he made for this film, which, in the end, often fails to capture the energy and lyricism of McCourt’s writing.


Many of the events of the book appear in the film: Angela’s Ashes tells the story of the McCourt family from the perspective of the oldest son, Frank, beginning when he is about 5 years old, until he is 16. They suffer unthinkable poverty and loss, mercifully punctuated with humor and profound instances of familial love. The film opens in Brooklyn, 1935 as Malachy McCourt, Sr. (Carlyle) proudly holds his newborn and only daughter, Margaret Mary. A few seconds later, the baby has died (we’re not told why), the first of many catastrophes to befall the McCourt family, including the deaths of two more children. They move back to Limerick, probably the first Irish family in history, as an older Frank narrates, to be sailing away from the Statue of Liberty. The remainder of the film, like the book, recounts the family’s struggle, back in Ireland, as they survive constant hunger and harsh rain, prejudice and persecution.


Parker’s journal helped me to understand why I felt troubled while watching Angela’s Ashes. I knew right away that I wasn’t bothered by witnessing horrific destitution and despair (which McCourt describes in detail), but instead by seeing the McCourts’ poverty too perfectly composed, too pretty, too carefully rendered with soft, washed-out colors. Some scenes resemble a sepia-toned postcard, suggesting a distant past and recalling the cover of McCourt’s book — the original gold and brown cover photo of a young, smiling Frank, not the one featuring Joe Breen, who plays the 8-year-old Frank in the film. Parker’s film is beautiful, even pleasurable to look at. And this seems inappropriate to me.


In his journal, Parker walks us through the process of creating this beautiful film. He writes about his decisions concerning locations, characters, actors, and filming methods, but sprinkled throughout this narrative are his comments lamenting the intrusion of relatively new architecture on the landscape (he sees “modern bungalows” as “thumbing their noses from pretty green hillsides”) and fanciful references to the ghosts of McCourt’s father and uncles lingering in the pubs (which he makes visible in the film). Such romantic ideas about Ireland are evident in Parker’s version of the poverty in Limerick in the 1930’s and 40’s. Idealized visions of any country or group of people can only be condescending. The viewer consumes, and enjoys, these presentations from a safe distance of time and place, assured that the characters and situations they’re seeing have little to do with themselves.


Reading Parker’s journal, I remembered feeling the same nervousness about romanticism when I started the book a couple of years ago. I felt a little put off by McCourt’s resurrection of Irish stereotypes and the glorification of “Irish woes.” In the first few pages, he writes, “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless, loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years” (11). Here we go again, I thought. I hate to see these stereotypes dredged up, as they almost always are in books and films about Ireland. I read on, however, and discovered that McCourt admirably fleshed out most of these familiar types: the alcoholic father, Malachy, isn’t merely shiftless and lazy: his spirit has been crushed by class prejudice and his own pride. And Angela turns out not to be a pious, defeated mother but one who rouses herself and fights for her family’s survival at the expense of her own dignity.


Alan Parker and the cast do succeed in translating some of these subtleties to the screen. For example, Robert Carlyle sensitively conveys Malachy’s broken spirit beneath his careless smile, so that you pity more than despise him. And it is easy to see how the young Joe Breen, a first-time actor and farmer’s son, was chosen to play the youngest of three versions of Frank (Ciaran Owens plays him at age 12 and Michael Legge at 16). His face conveys a mixture of innocence and rough experience.


During the first third of the film, the camera (and by extension the viewer), often gazes on Breen’s large eyes and freckles, which by now we’ve all seen staring out at us from the movie poster and the recent paperback editions of the text. At a basic level, the focus on Frank’s face makes sense: we are watching him take it all in, the suffering of his parents and siblings, as well as his own, and seeing the effects register in his face. At the same time, one senses that the film invests more in Breen beyond his playing the main character, as if he represents some sentimental embodiment of childhood in general and for Parker, an Irish childhood in particular. In his journal, Parker writes of Breen, “He is a beautiful, unspoiled boy and bright as a button,” and asserts that he encouraged Breen not to act, but to just “be himself.” This reference to Breen as beautiful and unspoiled doesn’t sit well. This is a kid who, Parker notes, milked his father’s cows every day before coming to work and yet, the director’s fantasy of him both ignores the reality of his life (he worked two jobs throughout the filming) and idealizes it (insinuating that these difficult circumstances enhance Breen’s “beautiful,” natural performance).


Frank McCourt has said his book “was not about Limerick; it was about poverty.” The film version focuses on the circular causes and effects of that poverty, usually located in class prejudices. Malachy can’t find work in the States because he’s Irish, or in Limerick because he’s from Northern Ireland and is Protestant. Charitable institutions humiliate and belittle Angela (Emily Watson) when she seeks assistance, assuming that because he is poor, she is also shiftless and that her husband must be a drunk and a philanderer. And the Catholic Church rejects Frank for training in the priesthood, despite his obvious aptitude, because of his low class.


Despite the film’s efforts to pinpoint the forces that keep people impoverished, the means by which it represents poverty — poetic images, the music that swells appropriately at the saddest moments — might be considered just such a force, making the characters’ suffering into something morally admirable and visually splendid, objectified for viewers able to afford $8.00 tickets. J.M. Synge once wrote of his travels through the west of Ireland, “In a way it is all heartrending, in one place the people are starving but wonderfully attractive and charming.” For me, Angela’s Ashes, the film, reasserts this attitude: It is indeed all heartrending, but so exquisite to see.

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