In poverty-stricken '30s Limerick a boy struggles to survive alongside his redoubtable mother and alcoholic father.
After taking on the spectacle of Evita, Alan Parker has again put his cojones on the line by tackling a phenomenon of recent literature. Yet his adaptation of Frank McCourt's Pullitzer prize-winning memoir succeeds. Just.
Angela's Ashes initially promises a catalogue of misery as seen through the eyes of five year-old Frank (Breen); half his siblings die of malnourishment, the family moves into a flooded, flea-infested house, his mother Angela (Watson, impressive but denied a point of view) begs for furniture, his unemployable father Malachy (Carlyle) drinks away the family's money - all in the first reel! Yet Parker lightens the gloom as Frank grows up, discovers masturbation (very funny) and communion (touchingly observed), and grows into various jobs and first love, all the while dreaming of America.
Occasionally the storytelling meanders, and is marred by a lack of drive that would have made the strong vignettes truly engaging. And, frankly, it is not as raw as you feel it should be. Still, there is loads to like about Ashes; Parker mounts the story with impeccable skill, peppering the film with powerful, telling moments (witness Malachy coldly resting his pint on his son's white coffin) and beautiful, rainswept images. An excellent director of children, Parker also extracts a troika of great turns from his perfectly matched Franks: young Breen may be the cute film stealer, yet Owens and Legge give equally subtle portrayals of ambivalence and emerging self-determination.
Superb performances alone can't quite hold this biopic together, but it's beautifully told nonetheless.