Turn Back the Clock
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I first saw previews for Angela’s Ashes on a DVD I had rented, I was intrigued. Here was a true story based on a writer’s memoirs about his life as a child in Ireland. The most intriguing part was that, although the life of Frank McCourt seemed filled with tragedy, there was a note of humor in the movie’s trailer. I quickly found and rented the film and have watched it numerous times since, even going so far as reading the book upon which it was based and the sequels that came afterward.
The film begins in the 1930s. At a time when people were coming to America to get a way from depression-era Ireland, Frank McCourt and his family were traveling in the opposite direction. Frank’s baby sister had just died and his family, already strained to the breaking point, realized that they couldn’t survive in America. So, they traveled home to Limerick.
Times were hard and life’s lessons harder. There were few jobs to be had in Ireland and Frank’s father had extreme difficulty finding work. What money he did earn went toward his problem with alcohol. Meanwhile, the children went hungry and eventually, two brothers were lost to the Limerick dampness and the lack of food and heat.
Yet, somehow, despite their difficulties, Frank’s mother, Angela, struggled to keep her remaining family together and in one piece. Through grit and determination, Frank survived his early years and discovered he had a special aptitude for school and most importantly reading and writing. The older he became, the more intrigued he was with returning to America, especially upon learning that the social class system in Ireland will not permit him to get further education past the last year of high school.
Encouraged by his family, friends and teachers and matured by a life lived in poverty, Frank eventually finds a way to get back to America. As his ship grows closer to the Statue of Liberty he realizes that his future is his and his alone to shape. This is a new journey in the life of Frank McCourt and he is determined to make the most of it.
Angela’s Ashes is the true story of Frank McCourt, writer and English teacher. His storytelling abilities coupled with his Irish wit are enchanting. As they say, when times are harsh, you must find a way to laugh or you simply will go mad with sorrow. Frank McCourt’s impoverished childhood in Ireland lent him the ability to laugh even through the hardest periods of his life. It is his ability to expose the humor in these events to his audience that makes McCourt’s books so high in demand.
Director Alan Parker made McCourt’s book his bible when it came to the creation of this film. As is discussed in the documentary, The Making of Angela’s Ashes, and during exclusive interviews with the cast and crew, Parker loved McCourt’s book so much that he wanted to stay as true to it as possible. Having read the book, I can honestly say that Parker did an excellent job in staying true to the story.
Emily Watson is brilliantly cast as Angela McCourt, a tough woman forced to beg for food, money and other amenities for the sake of her children’s survival. Robert Carlyle perfectly portrays Malachy McCourt who, as described by Frank, was three different sorts of people - the proud man who couldn’t find work and refused to beg for anything, the fun-loving, storyteller who loved his children and the alcoholic who loved his drink. The part of Frank McCourt was portrayed by three individuals. Joe Breen is simply adorable as the young, insufferable Frank McCourt. Ciaran Owens was well-cast as the “middle” Frank. The part of teenage Frank McCourt was portrayed by Michael Legge. All three excelled in their roles, although the standout performance belongs to Joe Breen.
Viewing the DVD version of the film, one is treated to commentary by Alan Parker and Frank McCourt, as well as two theatrical trailers for the film, interviews with cast and crew and the very informative documentary, The Making of Angela’s Ashes. It was interesting to learn that when Alan Parker began work on the film, Ireland was going through a period of economic growth. The lanes in which frank McCourt had lived as a child were no longer there. Thus, Parker was forced to have these sets built from scratch, relying on photos of the area for authenticity. When Frank McCourt visited the sets, he was taken with how realistic the sets really were. In the documentary and in the interview sections of the special features, McCourt comments on his incredulity at his memoir becoming a major motion picture. He also marvels at how hard Parker worked to recreate the events in McCourt’s book.
The storyline of Angela’s Ashes tugs at the heartstrings thanks to the tragic events in Frank McCourt’s life. However, it is laced with so much humor that the movie never becomes depressing. And one must keep in mind the fact that this is the tale of someone who became a successful teacher and writer. Thanks to hard work and perseverance, this man achieved what he once believed impossible. He found the American dream and thus, this movie ends on a happily uplifting and inspiring note.
As I’ve said before, I have watched this film again and again and it never fails to affect me emotionally. So, have a box of tissues at hand - you‘ll need them for the tears you will cry from laughter as well as sadness - but definitely check out Angela’s Ashes, a heartwarming and uplifting story of a young boy who suffers through a difficult childhood and finds hope at the end of his journey.