By EW Staff
Updated November 16, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
Joe Breen, Angela's Ashes
Credit: Bill Kaye
  • Movie

”Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s harrowing and poetic memoir of that woeful childhood, has sold over 5 million copies around the world — not bad for a book about a boy growing up in a Limerick slum with no cash, no food, and only sporadic appearances from an alcoholic father. Now the McCourt family’s struggle with destitution has become a $25 million Hollywood movie. Normally, muses McCourt, ”it’s not the kind of movie that Hollywood takes to its bosom. At least in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with Henry Fonda, everybody was warm and dry and they wound up in California.” Misery loves company, sure, but the company usually doesn’t fall head over heels for misery.

Ironically, misery was hard to come by when director Alan Parker journeyed through Ireland to scout locations for ”Angela’s Ashes.” He’d had no trouble tracking down Dublin squalor when he shot ”The Commitments” in 1990, but a decade’s worth of prosperity had made the Emerald Isle gleam. Because McCourt’s old neighborhood in Limerick is gone, the crew built a slum right off the river Liffey in Dublin.

”It was an amazing set, with lots of drains to take away all the puddles,” says Emily Watson, who plays Angela McCourt, the film’s iron-spined matriarch. ”I was just soaking — cold and wet, and there were rain machines on all the time. And of course the house was always flooded; we were up to our ankles in water, trudging about.” Factor in a pack of shrieking infants and you’ve got what sounds like an actor’s nightmare — or, in Watson’s case, paradise. ”It was a great way for me to get into character, because that was Angela’s life,” says the twice-Oscar-nominated star of ”Breaking the Waves” and ”Hilary and Jackie.” ”You can’t be pretentious about your work if you’ve got four or five children under 6 going ‘Waaaaa!’ — screaming at your feet. You’ve got to get on with it.”

At this point it should be clear to watchful initiates of the ”Angela’s” cult that yes, Parker did stay true to both the lyricism and the grit of McCourt’s book. ”It’s not sentimental,” says coproducer Scott Rudin, the prolific mogul who’s also unspooling this season’s ”Sleepy Hollow.” ”That was the biggest trap, I think — to make it sort of goopy. Alan avoided that.” As for those who fret that it could be a mite too depressing? Well, says Watson, ”I think you’d be much more concerned if you found that we’d watered it down for the great sentimental public.”

When it came to casting the lead, Parker stuck to the homeland: Three young Irish actors — Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge — play Frank McCourt in different phases of his childhood. Breen, 9, rode in for an audition after milking the cows on his family’s farm in County Wexford; Parker plucked him out of roughly 15,000 candidates. As for Owens, 13, and Legge, 20, they were already seasoned acting pros in Ireland. Owens, in fact, hails from a burgeoning dynasty of the Irish cinema: His brother Eamonn had the lead role in 1998’s ”The Butcher Boy.”

All of that integrity may resonate with devoted readers, but it won’t automatically translate into lucky charms at the box office: The promise of a ”faithful rendering” didn’t exactly bring ”The Crucible” or ”Beloved” a pot o’ gold. ”Listen, I found an audience with ‘Nobody’s Fool,”’ Rudin counters. ”I found an audience with ‘A Civil Action.’ If you treat a literary work like it’s a literary work, you’re going to fail. If you treat a literary work like it’s something to be pillaged and mangled into a movie, you have a shot at making it work.” BUZZ FACTOR: 7

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Angela's Ashes

  • Movie
  • R
  • 145 minutes
  • Alan Parker