First there was “Angela’s Ashes,” a portrait of working-class Ireland that was dismal and bleak. Now there’s “Agnes Browne,” which, if anything, suffers from forcing itself to be upbeat. All these Irish-film makers need to get together and figure out how to make one somewhere in the middle.
It’s 1967 Dublin, and Agnes Browne’s (Anjelica Huston, who also directed) husband has just died, leaving her with seven children to care for. With the help of her best friend Marion Monks (Marion O’Dwyer), a sort of matronly Betty Rubble figure, the two sell fruit in the town each day, along with several other female vendors.
Early on, Agnes borrows money from loan shark Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone), who is somewhat more menacing than his name. When she gets her widow’s pension and pays him off in full, he’s angry that he won’t be able to come around each week and collect interest off her anymore. Which is fine, since she has no intentions of dealing with him any further anyway — until her rebellious little boy Frankie (Ciaran Owens) gets caught up in ditching school and playing cards all day, in the process of which he finds himself indebted to Mr. Billy, which of course involves poor Agnes, too.
The focus is Agnes, though, and her life — crammed into 90 minutes, of course, which may be the problem. About two minutes are spent on oldest son Mark’s (Niall O’Shea) puberty crises; another two on daughter Cathy’s (Roxanna Williams) first communion; another few on the long-haired, doughy French guy Pierre (Arno Chevrier) who wants to date Agnes. Has it been long enough since her husband died, though? Apparently, because she not only goes out with Pierre, but kisses him at the end of the date, too. There’s no time for mourning; we’ve got to get back to the fruit vending scenes, so Agnes and Marion can talk about sex some more!
Huston is stalwart, as you’d expect, in the lead role; indeed, it’s sort of a generic stoicism that is no more dramatic or impressive than what we’ve seen in plenty of other movies about women who have to be strong under adverse circumstances. She and O’Dwyer do have a nice chemistry together, though, making their characters’ friendship an endearing and sweet one.
As mentioned earlier, “Agnes Browne” often tries too hard to be funny, starting with the very first scene, in which Agnes and Marion go to the welfare office to get Agnes’s widow’s pension and engage in a series of lame word-play gags with the clerk that sound like a bad Abbott and Costello routine. At the funeral, the whole entourage accidentally goes to the wrong grave and must then run across the cemetery to find the right one, a situation that could be funny, but that here just seems forced.
There’s also a “Brady Bunch”-style save-the-day cameo by Tom Jones that is just plain embarrassing — far too absurd to be uplifting.
But Marion and Agnes have some real laughs between them, particularly in a driving-instruction scene where the two giggle at everything like a couple of schoolgirls. It’s that sort of whimsy that director Huston no doubt wanted to permeate the whole film, but that only manifests itself occasionally in this entertaining but uneven bit of trifle.
C+ (; )