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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed By: Alan Parker
Written By: Laura Jones, and Alan Parker
Starring: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge

Angela's Ashes is a film adaptation of Frank McCourt's award-winning childhood memoir that was written and directed by Alan Parker. As un-Hollywood as a film can get, it may have had Tinseltown heavy Paramount Pictures listed as its distributor, but this is a film with little or none of the typical sugarcoating that we've come to expect.

This is a raw film in every sense of the word. It's as bleak as it is depressing. It also manages to be a touching story of how love and following your dreams can help overcome the greatest of odds. Although some who have read the book felt that the movie was missing some heart, the end result is still a courageous piece of filmmaking that will touch on your emotions and stay with you for some time. You are bound to laugh, cry, get angry, and rejoice after 2 and 1/2 hours.

Angela's Ashes works as a probing examination of the harsh realities of childhood. The film hits your emotions early as the McCourt family endures the loss of three of its small children before you've even had the chance to settle into your favorite chair. Talk about hopelessness: a family that has to leave America to go back to Ireland because they can't afford to stay in the land of opportunity.

Back home is Limerick, Ireland, which, for many, is the true definition of despair. Director Parker and cinematographer Michael Seresin beautifully capture the Limerick of the 30's and 40's with dark depressing shades of color. It's a cold place with no sunshine and plenty of rain. Voiceover narration effectively captures the mood of the times here. Frank and his family grow up in a place that is divided in every way but loose: politically, religiously, and socially. He perseveres thanks to his sense of humor and the love of his mother Angela. His father is also of the loving variety, but he is also the worst kind of disgrace that a person can be - a man who would rather use whatever money that he's got to have a pint at the local bar instead of feeding his children. Malachy McCourt let his stubborn pride force his wife to continuously beg for handouts.

Frank (played in three stages: Joe Breen as the young Frank, Ciaran Owens as the middle incarnation, and Michael Legge as the older version - ages 5 to 16) goes through this difficult and awkward period in search of the same things that all young men his age do: first job, first love, and trying to be accepted by his peers in this sometimes cruel and ugly world. These things are tough enough, but are made even more difficult when he comes home to a flooded house every day, his father is AWOL most of the time, his mother is depressed (understandably so) all of the time, and he's forced to share a lavatory with everyone else in his neighborhood. Subsequently, Frank's father comes across some potentially solid employment overseas and Frank, as well as the rest of the family, soon realizes that he won't ever be back and that (although it's hard to imagine) it's for the best. The family, however, miraculously finds not only a way to survive, but a way to prosper as well.

Not only do the little atmospheric details stand out here, but the film's casting is superb. Robert Carlyle (who was solid in The Full Monty and mesmerizing in Ravenous) continues to shine with another strong supporting performance as Frank's unreliable father Malachy. You know that an actor has done a good job with a role when he's able to bring a level of sympathy to a totally despicable character. Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie) was a wonderful choice to portray the film's title character. Watson has mastered this type of heavy dramatic terrain before, and she delivers a heartbreaking performance as a woman who truly suffered and did everything that she knew to keep her family together, safe, and happy. Kudos must also go to the three young actors who portrayed Frank McCourt at different stages. Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge were able to give us a sense of the central character's triumphs and ordeals.

Frank McCourt and his family lived in a miserable place and had to put up with a lot (more than most) growing up. Was it really that miserable? You bet! Was there love in this family notwithstanding? Without a doubt! Angela's Ashes is certainly not for everyone, but if you do give it a shot you'll be richly rewarded with a satisfyingly heartwarming experience.

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