Turns out Limerick, Ireland, isn’t nearly as happy a place as you’d think, what with the merry five-line poems being named after it and all.
In “Angela’s Ashes,” a film based on Frank McCourt’s autobiographical novel, Limerick in the 1930s and ’40s was a damp, gray place where everyone was unemployed and lived in squallor, yet still managed to find money enough to drink a lot.
The Angela of the title is Angela McCourt (Emily Watson), Frank’s mother. It’s best not to ask why the film is called “Angela’s Ashes” when neither Angela nor her ashes are central figures in it, as that question is not answered.
Neither are a lot of others. Like, Why are we watching this?
Told through the eyes of Frank, beginning at age 5 and ending with him at 16, the story is a bleak, dreary one with little humor. Dad (Robert Carlyle) is a drunk who can’t get a job, partly because he’s from Northern — that is, Protestant — Ireland, but mostly because he’s a drunk. Three — count ’em, three — of the family’s young children die within the first 25 minutes of the film. They live in a water-logged apartment with flea-infested mattresses, the kids at school make fun of Frank because of his poverty, and things are just generally pretty crappy.
Frank’s No. 1 goal is to go to America, where the family was to start with before poverty forced them back to their roots in Limerick. To that end, he takes over as man of the house after Dad disappears, and he gets a job with the post office.
We see Frank grow up, and the three actors who play him at ages 5, 10 and 15 (Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge) are all very good, particularly Legge. He gives the character a handsome-but-gawky feel, and you can tell just by looking at his face that Frank has lived a hard life already.
But then there’s that unanswered question: Why are we watching this? Or, to put it more bluntly, So what? Frank dabbles in love, sex, domestic violence and plenty of other coming-of-age experiences, but they don’t seem to add up to anything. It is hinted that he will turn out to be just like his father, but that never pans out. It’s also hinted he’ll become involved with a rich young lady who may be his ticket out of this hellhole, but that doesn’t happen either.
The film is a lot like life, in other words. It’s interesting enough to keep you with it, lots of things start to develop but never go anywhere, people come and go without really being fleshed out (Frank’s parents are the worst victims of this), and it’s overall pretty sad and dismal. Most of us go to the movies precisely because they’re NOT like real life — we’ve all experiened real life, and it’s kinda boring — but this one dares you to watch it because it IS real.
So be it. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I wouldn’t see it again. Reality is a perfectly acceptable thing for a film to engage in, but only if it’s leading up to some universal truth or other worthwhile point. To show a young man’s life just for the sake of showing it doesn’t cut it.
C+ (; )