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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Irish Film Marathon: Part 4

I should have had this review up ages ago, but due to some technical problems with my PC and because I've been busier than usual, I didn't get the chance to write it up. Also it will be a bit shorter than the others.

The film which garnered the poorest reviews out of all the films chosen for thsi marathon would be Alan Parker's adaptation of Frank McCourt's classic biographical novel, Angela's Ashes.
I have vague memories of the book, which I read at a very young age, but I do remember enjoying it and some particular passages have stayed in my mind ever since.
But unfortunately critics and audiences alike seem to have thought it the adaptation failed to capture the greatness of the book. It received poor reviews, and flopped.

But now after watching it, I can honestly say that I don't know why it received such lacklustre reviews and performed so poorly at the bow office. 
I thought is was a very well made, brilliantly performed and very compelling film.

This will be the first review of the marathon where I go against the general consensus in a significant way. But I just can't comprehend the poor reviews this film received. It may not be a masterpiece, but it certainly is very original and just a good film all around.
 Angela's Ashes is based on the book of the same name written by Irish author Frank McCourt. It is an entirely autobiographical piece and makes for fascinating reading. I thought that Alan Parker and the screenwriter Laura James did an excellent job of adapting the book. They captured the perfect atmosphere, a depressing, fatalistic atmosphere punctuated by short bursts of humour, and even managed to fit in an amusing and witty narration taken straight out of the book.

It tells of an Irish family, composed of the mother Angela, the father Malachy and the eldest son Frank. These are the three main characters, and although there are other siblings and relatives, they are nothing more than supporting characters and never have a storyline of their own.
The film starts with the family in Brooklyn, New York in the 1930's. They had obviously immigrated there along with many other Irish to escape the famine, troubles and general poverty that affected Ireland at the time.
However only a short part of the film takes place in the US, as tragedy befalls the family and they are forced to leave for Ireland and their mothers home town of Limerick.
Now Ireland was certainly very poor at the time, but Limerick was particularly bad and one of the worst place to live at the time, even today it remains a rather unsavoury town.
Tragedy after tragedy befalls them, siblings die, the father is constantly out of work due to his Northern Irish origins and his drunkenness.
Frank is portrayed by three different actors. One at the age of 5, one at the age of 10 or so and one around 15. So the film spans more or less 10 years in the family's life.
All is based around Frank, everything that happens is in some way linked to him, thus each significant event such as the leaving of his father, his illness, his first love etc... Provides insight into how he developed as a person, but luckily the smaller things that make up life aren't missed out, providing a realistic and enjoyable air to the film. Such as the trips to the Cinema, the two brothers splashing each other in puddles, going to school etc...
It's a real coming of age film, this may sound cliche but that describes the film perfectly, it is about his transition from a boy to a man , represented in the film by his first pint, but I prefer to see the tradition as occurring at the very end of the film when he arrives in New York alone, then he has become truly a man.

One of the most important influences in Frank's early life was that of the Catholic Church, and indeed the film provides more insight into the way of life in Ireland, and it particular how it was influenced and even shaped by the Church, than any other film I've seen. The influence of the Church had an all powerful and all encompassing hold on people's lives in Ireland at the time and rarely was this power employed in a way that benefited the people. I don't want to start a massive debate about the merits of Catholicism here, I am not an atheist although I am rather anti organised religion, but I would like to point out that the Catholic Church was directly responsible for the poverty of many families, often because the prohibition of contraceptives led to enormous families that were hard to maintain, but also because it encouraged hatred towards the Protestants, of course the Protestants have their part to play in the matter as well, but the fact remains that the Catholic Church did more harm that good to the inhabitants of Ireland at the time, infusing them with fear of God, with guilt and with a meek acceptance of their awful fates which is something I can not agree with and was obviously just a means to exert their power over the populace. Furthermore, where were they during the famine? All the people got was scraps of their food and disease ridden furniture in return for their devotion.

Anyway, moving on from that subject, I did admire the films refusal to make the film to idealised, sure Ireland is a beautiful place, and the people are very friendly, but the fact remains that they were utterly miserable, famished and dirt poor. No attempts were made to make the film into a traditional coming of age film, when things went wrong tehy went horribly wrong, when the father left, he didn't come back, when his first love was ill, she died. Such was life at the time, harsh and brutal.
Watching it from the point of view of someone considerably more well off, although far from being able to describe myself as wealthy, it was rather heartbreaking to watch this film. Perhaps the impact was augmented by the fact I now live not far off from where the film takes place, perhaps I'm just easy to impress when it comes to films, or perhaps I am just being to generous with this particular film. But I honestly think, that it is a very moving piece of cinema, that retains nonetheless some of the books humour. The accusations brought against it of romanticising the poor are ridiculous and quite offensive, they are portrayed in a most unflattering light, we are not exactly meant to feel sorry for them, except maybe for the children, because they themselves are flawed.

It seems to me that much of the criticism of the film revolves around the perceived failure of Alan Parker to transmit the humour and drama that made up McCourt's early life successfully onto screen. The visuals, performances and pretty much everything else was praised, but on the whole it seems to have been considered tedious.
Of course I will agree that is it nowhere as near as great as the book, but it seems that yet again a film adaptation of a book is compared unfavourably to the book and dismissed. But looked at solely on it's own cinematic merits, it's a great film.

If their is one thing I'd criticise about this film it would be the pacing, it was rather jarring at first and hard to get into. It took some getting used to I will admit and never fully found it's flow. This is often a problem I have with Parker's work, and while I was never bored I did feel the film might of had a bit more of a dramatic impact at times if it had been paced better. Some scenes get repetitive, others are only passed upon lightly and deserved more.
One of the most interesting things about the film, and the book for that matter, is not actually contained within. This would be he reception they received, especially by the inhabitants of Limerick who were quick to accuse McCourt of inaccuracy. I find this most interesting, as I don't doubt McCourt's recollection for a minute, yet the fact that the inhabitants stand by their opinion that Limerick was a great place to live puzzles me. Could this be due to the relative acceptance people had of their fates, and the fact that they seemed loath to complain, always showing a toughened façade to the world around and never admitting their weaknesses and the fact that their lives hung by threads. It's almost like they blocked out the horrible conditions around them by refusing to acknowledge them. Anyway, it certainly provides food for thought.

Alan Parker is a director who has many detractors, yet a solid enough fanbase. In a way I'm not surprised that this film received mixed reviews, as his films have been doing so for many years. But I think people should look past their opinions on Parker's work (which I'll admit isn't always great) and see the film for what it truly is, a very touching coming of age story that is intensely realistic and captures a whole generation  of peoples lives.

The performances were great all around, but some stood out more than others such as the always terrific and horribly underrated Robert Carlyle, who for some reason is playing an Irishman even though he's a Scot. He is terrific and immensely likeable, despite his flaws I couldn't help but feel sorry for him at first, a feeling that diminished over time due to his actions. He is perhaps the most complex character of the film and Carlyle gives an unforgettable performance.
Emily Watson, yet another underrated performer, plays Angela, the mother of the family. She does so admirably and just confirms my high opinion of her. She is a rather complex character as well, and although it is easy to feel sorry for her, one cannot but help be appalled by her apathy towards her situation at times.
Parker with the 3 actors who play Frank
Frank McCourt is played by three actors, Joe Breen plays the youngest incarnation, Ciaran Owens the middle one, and Michael Legge the elder. Of all of these I think Joe Breen's performance was the most striking, although Michael Legge's is the best.
The rest of the cast are excellent, with some familiar faces for those who have some experience with English or Irish Cinema of the time.

 The score by John Williams is brilliant, and I'm sure no less was expected from such a distinguished composer. This is one of his least known scores, but I found it to be excellent nonetheless, and perfectly suited to the tone of the film.

All in all, Angela's Ashes is a beautifully shot, very well acted film that provides a considerable amount of insight into the way of the life amongst the poorest of the poor in Ireland at the time and also acts as a great coming of age story. It certainly has it flaws, and obviously will not please everyone, but I was surprised to find that it was a great film, as I had pretty low expectations.
I'd highly recommend it, but don't set your hopes too high, as you run the risk of being as disappointed as the many film critics that reacted badly to this film.

Next up is My Left Foot, by Jim Sheridan. 
To read the previous entry, click here!

All comments are of course welcome and will be answered.

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