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Photograph by Bill Kaye

Hard Scrabble: Robert Carlyle plays a hard-drinking father in 'Angela's Ashes.'

Gritty Ashes

Alan Parker preserves the anger of Frank McCourt's memoir

By Richard von Busack

IS Angela's Ashes Alan Parker's best movie because he finally found material he couldn't sensationalize? Parker's career began wrong-footedly with Bugsy Malone--a film that is almost a myth now. I was at a party recently where someone was describing vague hallucinatory recollections of a movie full of children dressed like 1920s gangsters and spurting whipped cream at one another--had it all been a bad dream?

Seeing Bugsy Malone was outré enough; someone I know saw it first-run in a theater in Istanbul, with Turkish subtitles, while the man next to her was trying to buy her from her father. Compared to Midnight Express, Parker's experiment in improving relations with the Turks, the proceeding anecdote seems less racist.

When Parker turned to Frank McCourt's memoir of childhood suffering in Limerick, Ireland, during the 1930s, it was easy to dread what was coming. But this film, an uncanny tale of rain, puke and little white coffins, shows something new for Parker: restraint.

It seems as if only now can the Irish, who are becoming a little more prosperous, look back at the sort of deprivation McCourt spelled out in his bestseller. The film excerpts the segment of the book that takes place in Limerick, between trips to America--the McCourt family's move to Brooklyn and narrator Frank's immigration to America after World War II.

THE LEAD ACTORS are Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson, and both distinguish themselves by not finding a scrap of spirituality in being poor. In Watson's hungry fierceness and Carlyle's tight look of cadging despair, the film stays reliably sharp.

Watson undergoes--as will be no surprise to the book's readers--the loss of many of her children, but she underplays these tragedies (which is scarier; any ex-kid can tell you that a howling mom isn't nearly as frightening as an ominously mute mom). Watson has dispensed with girlishness here. It's evident in the way her gimlet eyes stare out at the world, in the exact evenness of her tone when she calls her soon-to-be-strayed husband a useless "feck."

Carlyle is both charismatic and deplorable as the father, who is the kind of hopeless drunk who would bring his child's coffin into the bar: half because it's his only comforting place in his life, half because the coffin is a sure ticket to a free drink.

The young actors tend to blur, compared to these parents. The best of them is the middle Frank (who also appears as a very young child and as a young man), played by Ciaran Owens, look-alike brother to the amazing Eamon "Frankie the Bad Bastard" Owens from The Butcher Boy. And like The Butcher Boy, this is an often funny film, with such gags as the dense uncle Pat clutching his French fries to his chest the instant he sees his poor-relation nephew turning up unexpectedly.

Occasionally, the vulgar Parker of old breaks through. He is most obvious in the scenes of the mother of the family, Angela, pleading before a board of social workers. Parker sets up the petty officials in an stock-still row of chairs with doggedly malicious faces, just like the authorities in his version of Pink Floyd--The Wall.

And the too-cute scene in which a priest denounces the makers of movies as "the devil's henchmen in Hollywood" is also repellent. Parker ought not to be so self-satisfied; the man who made the film version of Evita has to be on some kind of nodding terms with Satan.

Still, Angela's Ashes is a sturdy work of adaptation. Parker deserves praise for his unusual seriousness. Maybe a long, lucrative bad-taste career was needed to make one film that had not just good taste but grittiness, a driving anger and energy throughout.

Angela's Ashes (R; 145 min.), directed by Alan Parker, written by Laura Jones and Parker, based on the book by Frank McCourt, photographed by Michael Seresin and starring Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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