“Angela’s Ashes” is the soggiest dud of all the major holiday releases, but it could easily give rise to an arresting parlor game. Anyone who has read Frank McCourt’s best-selling memoir about his spectacularly awful Irish childhood could try to come up with the most penetrating reason for why a book this resonant and lively, this brimming with gutbucket resilience, could inspire a movie that entails little more than two hours and 20 minutes of beautifully photographed rain, mud, blood, lice, vomit, dead babies, and whining.
The movie has been accused by critics of leaving out McCourt’s humor — the wry spoonful of Gaelic-heathen absurdism that made the book’s catalog of everyday horrors go down so blithely. (The first time that Dad squanders all of the family’s food money on drink, it’s a tragedy; the second time, it’s a joke; the 467th time, it’s a reason to party.) True, the one-liners are mostly gone, but to me, what director Alan Parker has so strikingly failed to bring alive is McCourt’s sense of adventure, his robust self-portrait as a spiky Irish Huck Finn who can never guess what’s coming next, and who finds an ironic redemption in the most hideous extremes of poverty simply because it’s the only reality he knows.
Parker, a “progessive” Brit, turns “Angela’s Ashes” into a static requiem for Irish miserabilism. Every shot seems to be rendered in the same tones of oxidized drabness — a calendar-art haze of despair. Since the three actors who play the young Frank at three different ages never add up to a single personality, the movie seems populated yet uninhabited; the only real star is the gloom.
Robert Carlyle, as the father, appears, in his half-witted irresponsibility, a stranger to his own family — a complete violation of McCourt’s derelict father, who is never more of a looming patriarch than when he’s been on a bender. As for Emily Watson, who plays the domestic martyr Angela, she seems to be slogging through all the muck and bodily fluids to get to that precious Oscar. Noble suffering comes a bit too easily to Watson. It would be a shame if this actress tamed her wild streak to become our official holiday-movie saint.