Agnes Browne seems to take place in a world as strange as Jupiter or Fargo. It’s set in 1967 Dublin, before the calamitous outbreak of blood violence in Northern Ireland, and the utter absence of bombs, paranoia, and seething IRA terrorists—not just as a presence, but as an issue—is so exotic to behold that I felt as if a veil were being ripped away. (The upcoming Angela’s Ashes isn’t about the Troubles either, but it’s set in a far more distant past.) Anjelica Huston, who directed the film and stars in it, is out to capture the extraordinary closeness that the Irish share (or once shared) without quaintifying it into small-town blarney. In Agnes Browne, middle-aged women cuss and razz each other as they hawk vegetables from carts, and fiddle and accordion players dot the street, yet these are more than cozy touches. Watching the movie, you feel a querulously intimate community unfolding before your eyes.
Huston plays the title character, a widow with seven children who is trying, in her hardscrabble way, to hang on to happiness. It comes in the quietest of forms: a stroll, arm in arm, with her best friend, or the mere prospect of tickets to a Tom Jones show. At the pub, Agnes meets a burly French baker for a date, and their every word is monitored by the ancient gossips in back. Yet the world remains harsh. Agnes’ friend falls ill, and the local loan shark is, in his way, a crueler viper than any urban-movie crook, since he knows the people he’s putting the screws to. Agnes Browne is modest and prosaic, with an unfortunate fairy-tale ending (yes, it features Tom Jones). Huston, however, gives a pure and touching performance, suffusing the movie with Agnes’ hopes and sorrows. B