Grow up in Ireland and here's your birthright: An alcoholic, unemployed father; a saint of a mother; a long list of siblings who die at birth or in childhood; feuding family members; a religion that's full of mysticism but lacking in practical solutions; and an impoverished lifestyle that's characterized by rundown, dirty dwellings and a perpetual lack of enough coal to ward off the winter's relentless rain and chill. But doesn't the overflowing sewage look pretty -- arty, even -- in the moonlight?
That's the feeling one gets from enduring Alan Parker's enchantingly photographed but rather mundane film version of "Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir of his early, difficult life in Limerick. Parker ("Mississippi Burning," "The Commitments") and co-screenwriter Laura Jones have turned McCourt's literate, beautifully written book into the last and least of the season's overlong, Oscar-reaching prestige productions. At two hours and 20 minutes, it's an exercise in tedium that digs deep into its funny, dark-toned source material but only manages to come up with stereotypes about long-suffering moms, plucky survivors and the (bad) luck of the Irish.
The parade of pain begins right away, in a squalid, crowded Brooklyn tenement. It's 1935, and the McCourt family faces the sudden, unexplained death of a baby daughter. Her mother, Angela (Emily Watson), temporarily goes over the edge, while drunk, out-of-work dad Malachy (Robert Carlyle) goes out for cigarettes one afternoon and stays away for days. The solution to their troubles? A return to the Old Country.
"We were the only Irish family in history saying goodbye to the Statue of Liberty," Frank recalls in voiceover.
Parker takes his sweet time letting us get to know the members of the McCourt clan in a tale that's told mostly through the eyes of Frank (nicely and naturalistically played at different ages by the excellent Joe Breen, Claran Owens and Michael Legge -- rookie actors all). The passage of time is easily marked by the steadily increasing number of new births and tiny coffins. Pop may spend too many of his mornings passed out to hold a steady job, but he's sure prolific when it comes to keeping the bloodline going.
The misery is hardly stifled in the McCourts' homeland, where Malachy finds it impossible to mend his ways, landing occasional work only to drink up all his wages at the corner pub. Worse, he's a Protestant, and his wife's Catholic family, including pushy grandma Sheehan (Ronnie Masterson), ceaselessly lobs insults his way. Even the children from the "mixed" marriage aren't immune from the prejudice: "I wouldn't want anything that was half Limerick and half Northern Ireland," Frank's aunt Aggie (Pauline McLynn) dismisses.
The anguish is only interrupted when the action occasionally shifts from the bleak home front to Frankie's misadventures. Given money for dancing lessons, he instead spends it on James Cagney movies. At other times, he catches heck from discipline-happy teachers, entertains a flirtation with voyeurism and makes a connection with a young woman who's dying of consumption. It's a pleasure watching Frank hatch his plans to escape from his tough circumstances. But the getting there is darn dreary.