The Troubles They've (Not) Seen

No offense: Emily Watson and Shane Murray Corcoran in Angela's Ashes

First of all, let's talk about the book, whether or not you've read it. (And if you haven't, you might consider it someday when heartbreak, spiritual flu, or a bad haircut threaten your solidity. It'll make your life seem totally doable, sprouting opportunities for joy. No wonder it was a bestseller.) Angela's Ashes is the memoir of Frank McCourt's beautiful and gruesome Irish childhood during the Depression and WWII. Briefly: After losing a baby girl in America, McCourt's immigrant parents move the family back to Ireland, where poverty, Catholicism, and his father's drinking make for a nearly medieval life of disease, begging, death, and misery--and also music, poetry, stories, dance, mystery, and ecstasy.

With all due respect, Angela's Ashes is a rich and flawed book. But if you read the book and felt the nag--uh oh, he's trying too hard, etc.--rest assured that the film version will make you forget about all that, and appreciate the book afresh, and say, My God, what a great movie this could be! Hey, I'm just another dime-a-dozen third-generation Irish-American, and even I know this movie didn't do its job. (Ahem, a caveat: If you have no intention of ever reading the book, go ahead and see the flick. It's worth it, despite the forthcoming tirade.)

The film of Angela's Ashes is a surprising letdown, because the book is loaded with cinematic moments--most of which are deleted, insanely, from the film. (Yes, McCourt co-wrote the screenplay. Go figure.) Take the endless nights when McCourt's father comes home drunk, wakes up the children, lines them up against the wall, and makes them promise to die for Ireland. Is this not movie magic? Or the scene where his mother Angela, once again abandoned by her man, is smoking by the hearth with a girlfriend, singing an old love song and laughing maniacally. I read this, pictured Emily Watson, and licked my chops. In vain. The nauseating physical realities that the book does its best to convey--the shit-spattered bedpans and diapers, the runny sores, the snot, the flies, and the rats--are, rather than brought to life, glossed over. And, worst of all, the brutal cycles of alcoholism, fully drawn in the book, are weirdly minimized here, so that it's tough to gauge just how helpless and dangerous the father is. (Perhaps McCourt was moved by some people's misguided critique that the book perpetuated a stereotype.) The only thing the movie gets right is the rain.

I don't want Irish people's suffering to serve as a pornographic yuck-fest for bourgeois Americans. But by evading the ugliness of the story, the filmmakers allow its beauty to lose impact, and opportunities are lost for the deep examination of universal problems. And while the book, told from a child's p.o.v., doesn't probe Angela's inner life, the movie certainly could. Somehow, Emily Watson or not, it doesn't. In fact, you'd never know how brilliant she is from this. On that count, none of the performances, including Robert Carlyle as the father, is particularly memorable. (Even the actor who plays the older McCourt, Michael Legge, is just too pretty, judging from photos of the real man.)

By contrast, McCourt the author seems like some kind of flaming-haired freedom fighter of Truth and Forgiveness. By embracing the dualities and horror in his history, and staying funny, he conveys all kinds of subtle insights about touchy subjects like the Church, good-hearted deadbeat dads, negligent mothers, and dopey poor folks. He proves his supercool superhumanity through a healthy, egocentric mercy: His critique of Catholicism doesn't condemn the whole midget show, as it easily could, but rather exposes its hypocrisy only as it affects his own story, in a spirit of generosity. We are allowed to love his parents, and at the same time we also want to strangle them for their approach to medical troubles. (After losing three children, they fail to take their son to the doctor immediately when he passes out and starts bleeding from his nose and rectum. He nearly dies.) Most crucial, McCourt leaves a light on for his dad. A light, mind you, not a halo.

The point: The film is afraid of offending. Offending Catholics, Irishmen, alcoholics, feminists, black people, poor people, gay people, smokers, those who were dropped on their heads as children, and horses. And something else: The book sometimes reads a bit dodgy, a bit tidy and overcomplete in its coverage of Important Social Issues. Could this child really have experienced all of this? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because McCourt is writing a ballad to a people and an era. Toward that end, he includes a multifloral cast of background characters with their own private trials and their own stories and songs. The result is that we, the pathologically individuated Americans (or so we think), see how they truly are a people, connected not just by physical experience but by shared myths, and a way of knowing that is unique: words, music, the sardonic joke that bites your ass when you're not looking.

For me, anyway, this invisible tapestry of lyrical intelligence is the very fabric of the book's soul, its harbor from chaos and meaninglessness, the formless organism that lives on when individuals pass away. The film writes off most of these people by focusing on the main characters, and in doing so betrays the very thing that makes the book bigger than itself. The promise of a new life in America--rather than McCourt's very Irish ability to make poetry of raw disaster--becomes the story's redemption. How very shortsighted that is. How very American.


Angela's Ashes is playing at area theaters.

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