Friday, December 4, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Angela's Ashes"

"Angela's Ashes" is a virtual case study in the challenges of translating a great book to the screen.

I read Frank McCourt's book about his incredibly harsh Irish childhood just last year, and immediately knew this was one of the best pieces of literature I would read in my lifetime. It's searing and revealing, offering an unflinching portrait of people at the absolute bottom of civilized society. There is great human ugliness, squalor, untimely death, hidebound religious dogma, and soaring joy.

While watching the movie, I was struck by the similarity to "Precious," one of 2009's best films, about a teen girl dealing with similarly soul-crushing adversity. Separated by 40 years and an ocean, the childhoods of Claireece "Precious" Jones and Frank McCourt were not so different.

But the film version of "Angela's Ashes," while an earnest and honorable attempt, fails to capture the breadth and depth of the novel. It's directed and co-written by Alan Parker -- one of my favorite filmmakers ("Mississippi Burning," "The Commitments") -- and clocks in just shy of 2.5 hours. Still, it feels like a truncated cinematic Cliff's Notes version of McCourt's book.

Although there is narration, it does not capture the mesmerizing first-person perspective of the novel, with an adult McCourt recalling and analyzing his situation with the weight and wry humor of years. For example, when Frank's mother (Emily Watson) goes begging at the church mission, and is mocked by the patriarchs on the board to the approval of the clucking hens of the female congregations, it just doesn't have the impact of the book. The shame and hypocrisy don't translate.

I liked Robert Carlyle as the father, a tragic figure who McCourt describes as the perfect father, except for his addiction to alcohol. Watching him repeatedly squander the family's meager funds on drink is just heart-breaking, and Carlyle adds notes of self-loathing not seen in the book.

The three actors portraying Frank -- Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge, from youngest to oldest -- do decent jobs, although we never really connect these innocent boys with the world-weary man narrating the action.

I was surprised reading the book how much sex was in it -- I still make jokes to my wife about "The Excitement," McCourt's phrase for all things sexual -- and pleased that Parker kept much of it in the film. After all, even boys on the edge of starvation do not lose their carnal craving. Although I noticed that he ended the movie with a typically inspiring shot of the Statue of Liberty, instead of the surreptitious little sex party Frank and some Irish ship officers engage in with some American wives.

The best thing about "Angela's Ashes" the movie is the atmospherics and mood. Shot in real Irish locations, including Limerick, where the book is set, Parker's film perfectly captures the dank dripping streets, the grimy men with coal dust trapped in the creases of their faces, the shabby rotting apartment where the McCourts live.

"Angela's Ashes" is worth watching for those who have read and adored McCourt's book, but I wouldn't recommend the movie for people who are still strangers to it. Watching the film version makes me want to pick the book up again, to experience the blissful work of pain and love.

2.5 stars

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