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David BruceA powerful film on being an Irish family in the 1930s. A true story. It is also a lesson in what the Church should and should not be.
-Review by David Bruce
ANGELA'S ASHES
(1999)

This page was created on February 16, 2000
This page was last updated on
April 25, 2002

Directed by Alan Parker
Writing credits:
Frank McCourt (book) and Laura Jones (screenplay) and Alan Parker (screenplay)

Emily Watson as Angela
Robert Carlyle as Malachy
Joe Breen as Young Frank
Ciaran Owens as Middle Frank
Michael Legge as Older Frank
Ronnie Masterson as Grandma Sheehan
Pauline McLynn as Aunt Aggie
Liam Carney as Uncle Pa Keating
Eanna MacLiam as Uncle Pat
Andrew Bennett as Narrator (voice)
Shane Murray-Corcoran as Malachy Jr.

Produced by David Brown, James Flynn (co-producer), Kit Golden (associate), Doochy Moult (associate), Morgan O'Sullivan co-producer), Alan Parker, Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder (executive), Eric Steel (executive), David Wimbury (line)

Original music by John Williams
Cinematography by Michael Seresin
Film Editing by Gerry Hambling

Rated R, for showing life as it is. Some sexuality and language.

A powerful film on being an Irish family in the 1930s. A true story. It is also a lesson in what the Church should and should not be.
STUDIO SYNOPSIS:
 In 1935, when it is more common for Irish families to leave their famine-stricken country for America, the impoverished McCourt family do the reverse. Following the sudden death of her 7-week-old daughter, Angela and her unemployable, alcoholic husband, Malachy Sr. set sail from New York Harbor to Cork with their 4 children- Frank, Malachy Jr. and twins Eugene and Oliver- to return to the land which a mystified young Frank had only heard of as "where there was no work and people were dying of the starvation and the damp."

A cold greeting awaits them in Limerick by Angela's Catholic family. Her mother, sister Aggie and brother Pat have never accepted Angela's marriage to a Protestant from Belfast. Grandma lends them some money for a small place on Windmill Street, and any hope of their luck changing soon disappears with Dad not being able to find employment and Oliver dying from malnourishment and the damp. Within months, Eugene dies from the same conditions, and Dad's spirits sink lower and lower - he not only drowns his sorrows in a pint of stout he cannot afford but shamelessly uses his son's coffin as a table in the pub.

Angela relentlessly plows on for the sake of her children. She pleads with the charitable St.Vincent de Paul Society to provide them with furniture and a new mattress that is not contaminated by the consumption, and as she is cross-questioned about her husband's job prospects, Frank looks on at her enduring such humiliation to protect and care for her family. A move to Roden Lane raises hopes of living in a better place, but as always, they are soon dashed. The lavatory for the entire street is outside their front door, and the ground floor, nicknamed "Ireland," is so wet the family can only live on the top floor, nicknamed "Italy," for most of the year. In Roden Lane, Angela gives birth to Michael.

Frank and Malachy attend Leamy's National School and are subjected to teasing by the other boys. Frank is introduced to the leather strap on his first day following a playground fight, and they are both taunted further for wearing shoes badly repaired by Dad with a bicycle tire.

Dad eventually gets a job at the Limerick Cement Factory. It lasts one day as he wastes his pay at the pub, comes home drunk and oversleeps the next day. Frank and Malachy, who witness his drunken homecoming, are beginning to tire of his irresponsible behavior.

Great anticipation surrounds Frank's First Communion. At school, the boys are taught how to receive communion, with strips of the 'Limerick Leader' newspaper acting as hosts, and making the collection (when communion boys collect money from neighbors) means a trip to the Lyric Cinema to see a Cagney movie with the proceeds. On the big day, a large breakfast at Grandma's prompts Frank to bring everything up, including his First Communion, causing Grandma to insist they return to the church to consult with the priest on her "having God in her backyard and what shall she do?" By now, Frank is too late to make the collection but slips into the Lyric with the help of his friend Mikey Molloy, who pretends to have a fit, diverting the attention of the ticket man.

With the arrival of another boy, Alphie, comes five pounds from Dad's family. Dad wastes no time in making a trip to the pub with the money. Mam dispatches Frank to the pub to tell the world that Dad is drinking the money for the new baby. Upon seeing his father drunkenly and pathetically singing to himself, Frank cannot bring himself to confront him, remembering all the nice times he has had with his Dad listening to his stories.

A stint in the hospital with typhoid brings Frank some unexpected new pleasures. Hot baths, a bed without fleas, his own lavatory and reading, particularly Shakespeare. He pays for this extended holiday by losing several months in school and returns to find himself in the same class as Malachy, though he is restored to his original class when he impresses the teachers with an essay entitled "Jesus and the Weather."

Fresh optimism comes along with Dad getting a job in England. Angela and her family are left on their own with the promise of a weekly telegram with a postal order. Nothing arrives and Angela is forced to beg for food outside a priest's door. Frank is now old enough to seek work, but his first job as a coalboy is short-lived as he gets the worst case of conjunctivitis from the coal dust the doctor has ever seen.

Christmas comes with promise of Dad's return. Consistent in his unreliability, Dad turns up a day later than expected, empty-handed and bruised from a brawl. The family makes do with a sheep's head for their Christmas dinner, and Dad departs the following day, this time forever.

Telegrams arrive sporadically, but not enough to stop Angela having to beg. Frank begins to focus on America for his better future, "where no one has bad teeth and everyone has a lavatory." Things take a further downward turn when the McCourts are evicted, Grandma dies and the family has to move in with their abusive cousin, Laman Griffin, who uses them all as slaves and expects sexual favors from Angela. Frank's schooldays end and he can take no more of Laman's behavior, fearful he will kill him if he stays, so he moves in with Uncle Pat.

Frank gets a job as a telegram boy and proudly goes to work in clothes kindly bought for him by Aunt Aggie. His new job leads him to the home of Theresa Carmody, a beautiful girl who has consumption, and he falls in love. Sadly, Theresa dies and Frank is wracked with guilt, convinced that her death is a punishment from God for their sexual acts.

A stroke of luck leads Frank to Mrs. Finucane, the local moneylender. She gives him extra money to write threatening letters to her debtors, an unpleasant job, but he is driven by his desire to get to America. One day, he arrives at Mrs. Finucane's home to find her dead and does not hesitate in taking enough money for his passage to New York and the ledger containing the records of her debtors, which he throws into the River Shannon.

When he returns from the pub one night in a drunken state and hits his mother, he is frightened that he could end up like his father and knows that if he stays in Ireland this may happen. His family are sorry to see Frank leave, but there is now no turning back. He departs for New York, and when the Statue of Liberty comes into sight, he knows he has done the right thing and that he is home again.

Bulletin Board:

GOD'S ASHES
Date: Mon, 08 May 2000
From: Keith Sandberg

My wife is a public librarian and brought home the "Angela's Ashes" book-on-CD a few months back. She loved the story and couldn't wait for the movie to come out. We finally saw it last Friday (May 5th). The movie opens with a brief narration that sums up the plot - "there is no childhood worse than growing up Irish Catholic". >From a spiritual perspective, the movie seems to be saying "if there is a God, He sure hasn't done any favors for the Irish".

Set in 1930's Ireland, the movie is filled with Catholic imagery - crucifixes and pictures of Jesus are in almost every scene. The school teachers intersperse every lesson with pop quizzes from the Bible (one teacher waxes eloquent about Euclid, then suddenly asks the class "who stood at the feet of the cross when Jesus was crucified?" The correct answer is rewarded with an apple, which the winner eats in full view of the other starving students). The desperately poor have no alternative but to stand in line at the church charity and submit to the humiliating insults of the priests before being given anything. The young Frankie McCourt and his father pray in front of a picture of Jesus, asking why the young children are dying.... there is no answer, and another of Frankie's brothers dies.

A teenage Frankie prays again, futilely, when his girlfriend goes to the hosptial sick of the deadly consumption. The point is clear - if there is a God, He certainly isn't listening to these poor, wretched folks. Every scene is dark and depressing. Almost every outdoors shot is in the rain - you see no sunshine in the entire movie. Everyone is miserable, even the people that have jobs and some security. The poverty depicted is stomach-churning and disgusting. The oppression of the church is everywhere. In 1930's Ireland, the church was the government, and the government was the church.

The only "positive" church representation was when the 15-year old Frank McCourt went to the church to beg forgiveness from St. Francis - he was convinced that his first girlfriend had gone to hell when she died, because they had premarital sex. He was sure that his sin could never be forgiven -- but the kind priest who heard his story assures him that God is a God of love and forgiveness, and the hard part would be to learn to forgive himself. Frank leaves the church with a new understanding of God, and a smile on his face.

While the tone of the movie is negative towards organized religion, it has what I would consider to be several redeeming qualities. The movie is set during the Depression. Many of us have relatives who went thru the same period. It is humbling to see such harsh poverty, and you can't help but feel guilty about the times, for instance, you complained that you "need" a pair of new shoes -- these kids had NO shoes at all.

Also, it quite adequately describes how alcoholism can mercilessly tear a family apart.... and how important a strong, healthy father can be to a young boy. Overall, I did not completely enjoy this movie. It seemed to dwell too much on the poverty and despair of the characters, and tried but failed to imbue the dark, ironic Irish bar-room humor that made the famous audio book such a wonderful listen. Even though it has a "happy" ending, I still left the theater feeling depressed. I don't think that's what the author of the book had in mind!
Keith Sandberg Melbourne, Florida
(you may publish my email address) Thanks for a great website!


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