The fire that won't go out
By Judith Orr
IT IS said that the people of Limerick in southern Ireland are angry about their city's negative portrayal in Alan Parker's new film, Angela's Ashes. This film certainly leaves you with an impression of Irish society far from the cute donkey on a postcard the tourist board likes to promote. Author Frank McCourt's story of his childhood has had spectacular success as a book. A summary sounds too bleak to bear. Two of Frank's younger brothers and his sister die as children. His alcoholic father drinks any money that comes the family's way. They are rarely far from starvation. The sewage from the shared outside toilet regularly flows into their hovel of a house. The film certainly does not shy away from the dirt and discomfort of the desperate poverty suffered by the McCourts. Frank's dad can't get work as he is mistrusted because of his northern Irish accent.
The memories of fighting the British for independence and seeing the north partitioned off are still raw. Yet the hopes that many had in an Ireland free from British rule have been dashed. Angela, Frank's mother, is bitter about how class still divides them from those in the city's posh avenues. She is also cynical about how she and her kind are treated by the Catholic church. It is the Catholic church which should be ashamed of the story of Angela's Ashes.
The only colour in this relentlessly grey film is from the gilt and splendour of the church interiors and the priests' robes. Angela queues with other starving women and their barefoot children for handouts from the St Vincent de Paul charity. A board of snooty guardians puts each through public humiliation just to receive a few food tokens. Frank learns to cope with hardship as he increasingly finds comfort in reading. A whole new world opens up for him listening to a neighbour's radio. He dreams of returning to America, "where no one has bad teeth and everyone has their own lavatory".
The resilience and basic humanity of ordinary people in the most dire conditions shine out of Angela's Ashes. But the film lacks something that made the book so powerful-Frank's voice. The book's magic lies in seeing the world through the often hilarious observations of a growing child. Some of this is put across in the voiceover, but there is still much that is lost. The fresh (and famous) faces of Robert Carlyle, and particularly Emily Watson, are not always convincing as people who have lived such a tough life. Yet despite these reservations this film is well worth seeing, particularly if it persuades you to read the wonderful book on which it is based.
- Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt is available from Bookmarks. The price is �7.99, plus �1.20 postage and packing. Phone 020 7637 1848.