Remember Monty Python's sketch about the Four Yorkshiremen, continually seeking to outdo each other with tales of childhood deprivation? Well, they've got nothing on the young hero of Angela's Ashes. Tuberculosis, conjunctivitis, the death of three siblings: these were just a few of the trials faced by author Frank McCourt during his miserable upbringing in '30s Limerick.
McCourt turned his dire experiences into a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which Alan Parker has reverently brought to the screen in a picture that omits none of the squalor and austerity that beset Frank's formative years. That it does not send you looking for the nearest bus to jump under is down to two factors.
Firstly, the real-life tale is infused with a dry sense of humour and an indefatigable optimism which both survive in the depths of poverty. (Witness Des McAleer's turn as a God-fearing teacher, or Father Ted's Pauline McLynn as Frank's battle-axe of an aunt.) Secondly, Parker appears incapable of framing any shot without maximising its visual potential. Moonlight reflected on muddy puddles, boys racing through torrential downpours, the River Shannon gushing as Frank sits pensively by its banks: cameraman Michael Seresin bathes every scene in a nostalgic glow.
Parker and co-writer Laura Jones also take pains to balance each tragic element with a lighthearted one such as joyous afternoons at the cinema, comical confessions and Frank's first tentative sexual forays. Refusing to put the blame on Carlyle's feckless drunk, the focus falls instead on Watson's weary stoicism, as she weathers the many misfortunes.
Acting honours go to Breen, Owens and Legge as the young, middle and older Frank, who have to battle with such a passive character. As he demonstrated in The Commitments, Parker is a dab hand at drawing fine performances from relative newcomers.
Alan Parker's faithful adaptation of Frank McCourt's memoir will no doubt nab its share of Oscar nominations, but its relentlessly bleak portrait of indigence and want makes for a long haul at times. Amusing interludes aside, it can be a bit heavy.
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