Angela’s Ashes

Angela’s Ashes (1999)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle
Extras: 2 Commentary Tracks, Making Of Featurette, Interviews, Trailers

The art of transferring a book to the silver screen is fraught with peril. Too often the results simply don’t live up to expectations. When the book in question is a runaway bestseller, Pulitzer Prize winner, and flat out cultural phenomena then the path to making it into a movie is that much more difficult. Fans of the book are likely to have preconceived notions of how the characters and settings should appear and will be the first to notice the harsh editing that is required to cram a full-length book into the space of just a few hours of screen time. When "Angela’s Ashes" was released to theaters the reviews were somewhat tepid at best and the movie-going public certainly didn’t turn out in droves to support Alan Parker’s adaptation of Frank McCourt’s wonderful book. Does this indifference mean that the movie itself is weak? Not at all. In fact, "Angela’s Ashes" is a very moving film that just may be a little too true to its harsh story for its own good.

For those who have been living in a cave the past few years and have missed out on the surge of interest that has surrounded "Angela’s Ashes," here’s a summary of the story. The film opens with the birth of a new baby girl, the fifth child in Malachy McCourt’s family. Living in Brooklyn after fleeing Northern Ireland due to his IRA involvement, Malachy is forced by circumstance to set sail back to Ireland after the tragic death of the baby. Finding the economic situation in Limerick much worse than it was in America, the family struggles with prejudice against the Protestant father, the loss of more children, starvation, and poverty. Growing up in Depression-era Ireland, young Frankie McCourt bears witness to the despair that plagues his family. Inspired by the example set by his saint of a mother, Angela, (and just as influenced by the sorry state of his alcoholic, dead-beat of a father) Frankie is able to come to grips with his hard lot, all the while dreaming of escape back to the land of his dreams, America.

A film like this is doomed to failure if the wrong actors are cast in the lead roles. Communicating a story this moving and wrenching requires a deft touch or the end result will be a saccharine sob-fest devoid of any real emotion. From top to bottom, the actors in "Angela’s Ashes" portray the family perfectly and before too long they come to embody them. Emily Watson is one of the finest actresses in contemporary cinema and her ability to convey the strength, love of family, and strong sense of duty of Angela is a wonder to behold. She watches as her own children die of malnutrition and her husband drinks away what little pittance he earns but she never turns her back on her family and it’s clear that her strength is what enables young Frankie to persevere.

Robert Carlyle, who is fast becoming one of my favorite character actors, plays Malachy and has what may be the most difficult of tasks — portraying "Dad" as he would appear in the eyes of a child. Usually selfish, neglectful, and drunk, there are times when he sobers up long enough to offer what little affection he can to his children. These few moments are quite touching and you feel what it must have been like for Frankie to strive his entire childhood for these few morsels of fatherly love. Malachy is a character you can’t decide whether to pity, despise, or both.

Three different actors play Frankie as he progresses through childhood. Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge don’t look alike but they are able to portray Frank McCourt in a consistent way so that the transitions between them are not as abrupt as they might have been. All three aptly convey the underlying strength and hopefulness of this young boy.

And last but not least is the character of the town of Limerick itself. All the acting in the world would have been for naught if the surrounding environment weren’t convincing in its portrayal of Depression-era Ireland. Here we see grim streets and alleyways and even grimmer homes filled with starving children and distraught parents. Perpetually muddy, cold, and gray, Limerick is as much a fixture in the book and the movie as the characters themselves.

"Angela’s Ashes" appears on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in an <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer. One caveat to bear in mind when watching this disc is that the director and cinematographer purposely used a number of different film effects to emphasize the mood of the story. As a result, the picture is at times somewhat grainy and the colors tend to shift as the movie progresses. In much the same fashion as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Three Kings," "Angela’s Ashes" has a few scenes that may make you want to reach for your TV’s picture controls, but rest assured that these visual effects are there for a reason. As already mentioned, colors slowly evolve throughout the movie from an almost black and white feel to a fairly vibrant look. In all cases, colors are very solid within the framework of the current palette that is being used. Contrast is also good and stays constant throughout the shifting styles of the film. Black level is spot on and even the darkest scenes are full of fine detail. While some may find the visual style of "Angela’s Ashes" distracting, it does lend itself to the tone of the story and the presentation on this DVD handles the material very well.

The audio is presented in a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 format and is more than adequate for such a dialogue-heavy film. The front soundstage is solid and the dialogue comes across clearly which is especially important considering the added difficulty of deciphering the characters’ accents. Surrounds are used sparingly for the most part but really come into play during some of the crowd scenes adding a much-needed sense of overcrowding. Deep bass is utilized infrequently but is quite effective in those few scenes where it does appear. Finally, John Williams’s sweeping score comes across very well and works beautifully with the visuals to convey the emotions of the film.

Perhaps surprisingly for such an overlooked movie, the DVD of "Angela’s Ashes" offers a fair number of interesting extra features. First up is a screen-specific commentary by director Alan Parker. Detailing many of the difficulties inherent in bringing this memoir to the screen, the <$commentary,commentary track> is quite engaging. Using the on-screen action as a springboard, Parker launches into a number of very in-depth discussions that reveal what it took to make this film. This is a director’s commentary in the truest sense of the phrase and provides a wealth of technical, editorial, and production information.

None other than Frank McCourt himself provides the second commentary. If you’ve never heard him speak then this is a fine opportunity to experience the gift of storytelling that has propelled this author to the top of the bestseller charts. Obviously pleased with the cinematic adaptation of his book, McCourt fleshes out the story with frequent anecdotes and even adds some information that’s not to be found in the book or the movie. As an aside, Frank McCourt also does the reading on the audiobook version of his memoir if you care to listen to more.

Also included is the 30-minute featurette "The Making of ’Angela’s Ashes’." Offering behind the scenes glimpses at the production and short interviews with the cast and crew shot during filming, the featurette provides a good look at the hard work involved in moving McCourt’s book to the screen. For more in-depth comments from the cast, "Reflections on ’Angela’s Ashes’" offers longer interviews with the principal actors, Alan Parker, and Frank McCourt. Finally, both the teaser and theatrical trailers are included.

"Angela’s Ashes" is a dark film that is nevertheless true to the book from which it was drawn. If it has one failing it’s that it is unable to convey the undercurrent of humor and zest for life that Frank McCourt made so apparent in his book. In the written form a deft word or two can add humor to what is otherwise a very grim tale. When that same passage moves to the big screen, the depressing visuals tend to overwhelm any small degree of humor that may be there. Choosing not to try and make the dark humor more overt, Alan Parker instead focuses on the story itself and the sense of hope it conveys. In this way the film is somewhat different than the book and a direct comparison between the two is unfair.

It is almost a foregone conclusion and cinematic maxim that the book is always better than the movie. With a book such as "Angela’s Ashes" that statement couldn’t be truer. But don’t allow that fact to detract from what is a very moving and capable adaptation. Yes, by all means read the book, but don’t miss out on this overlooked gem of a movie. Great performances, a smattering of fine extras, and a beautiful presentation make "Angela’s Ashes" a DVD well worth watching.