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Movie Review

Based on Frank McCourt's best-selling autobiography, Angela's Ashes presents the dismal and rain-drenched story of a poor Irish-Catholic family living in Limerick, Ireland, during the '30s and '40s. Tragedy after tragedy haunts their every waking moment as disease, death, alcoholism, prejudice and poverty wedge them into an outrageously cruel existence. A grown-up Frank narrates his childhood experiences and his desperate quest to leave Ireland for the golden shores of America.

Positive Elements: As a history lesson, Ashes can serve as a reminder to those prone to self-indulgence that life doesn't owe them anything. The flip of a coin, the change of a decade, or a trip across the ocean and one might find everything stripped away. The creature comforts, even the bare necessities of life. Despite being forced into a life of extreme poverty and desperation by her drunk and deadbeat husband, Angela devotes her life to keeping her children fed and clothed. Her maternal love knows no bounds and no obstacle too big.

Spiritual Content: Catholicism is frequently depicted through the youthful and disillusioned eyes of Frank. While religion is never mocked, Frank's perspective provokes serious questions revolving around sincerity and compassion (or lack thereof) in the Church. He is rudely denied the privilege of being an altar boy because he is poor and "from the North." When his teachers see that he is a bright boy and deserves the chance to go on to higher education, the Christian brothers in charge flatly deny him that chance, for the same reasons.

After his first communion and communion breakfast, Frank becomes sick and throws up. His horrified grandmother shrieks at him, appalled that he has "thrown up the body and blood of Jesus." Convinced that "the body of God is in the backyard" where Frank threw up, she sends him to confession to ask the priest what to do. A school teacher uses Jesus' own lack of material possessions to reprimand Frank's classmates for laughing at his old and repaired shoes. He points to a nearby crucifix and says, "You don't see our Blessed Savior sportin' shoes!" A despondent Angela exclaims once that, "God may be good for some people somewhere, but He hasn't been seen lately in the lanes of Limerick." Still, much prayer is offered (some of it directed at Mary and St. Francis) for food, clothing, health and other basic needs.

Nudity and Sexual Content: Frank and his young pals climb up a trellis to spy on naked girls (the women's breasts are shown). The boys talk about female body parts, and Frank briefly contemplates bestiality after a priest asks him if he is committing that particular sin. Later, the boys are pictured standing together in a field, masturbating (their bare backsides are shown). When Frank is fifteen years old, he succumbs to a sexual relationship with a girl. It begins quite abruptly one day when he delivers a telegram to her house. He's cold and wet, so she tells him to take off his clothes and dry off by the fire. She then grabs his penis and leads him across the room to a couch. Shadows obscure his genitals, but the scene is quite graphic in its implications. Early in the film, toddlers are shown naked while they take a bath.

Violent Content: Family squabbles result in slapping and hitting on a couple of occasions. Frank gets into a schoolyard fistfight with another boy.

Crude or Profane Language: Nearly 20 f- and s-words, and volleys of the word a-- punctuate dialogue. Some of the profanity comes from Frank and his friends when they are still quite young. Despite the devout Catholicism of the film's subjects, Jesus' name is used in vain on numerous occasions.

Drug and Alcohol Content: Frank's father, Malachy, suffers from a severe case of pride mixed with alcoholism. He is repeatedly shown falling-down drunk. He drinks up every wage he ever earns, along with gift money for a new baby. He can't keep a job for longer than a few weeks because he becomes too drunk to work once the paychecks arrive. Malachy and Angela also smoke frequently. When Frank turns 16, his uncle takes him to a pub for his first "pint." Frank stumbles home, just like his father, slaps his mother across the face and calls her a slut before collapsing. Alcohol is never glorified here. Its evil effects are felt too deeply for that. Yet, it is tolerated and even embraced from a cultural and social perspective despite its obvious dangers.

Other Negative Content: Frank's obsessive quest to flee to America prompts him to steal money from a dead employer to finance his journey. When he curses at, slaps and reviles his mother, he goes to confession, but never apologizes to her. The concept of morality seems to remain foreign to him, despite his immersion in the Catholic faith.

Summary: Frank McCourt had a terrible life. But Angela's Ashes doesn't even begin to do his story justice. Think of it this way. It's as if a stranger came to your house, told you tales of a distant and forgotten land, throwing pictures on the coffee table to illustrate his points. Ashes is a combination of those snapshots thrown haphazardly across the screen. It's like flipping through a National Geographic at a doctor's office; you're touched by what you see, but the moment you walk out of the waiting room, you forget. The gravity and despair of Angela's Ashes slips from your mind, in much the same manner, moments after leaving the theater. The emotional depth of what transpires is never communicated fully to the audience. You see what happened, but you don't feel it. That's unfortunate. Couple that with the film's troubling winks at public masturbation, casual sex, foul language and theft, and this Irish history lesson just isn't worth the effort.

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Emily Watson as Angela; Robert Carlyle as Malachy; Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge as Frank


Alan Parker ( )


Paramount Pictures



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Steven Isaac

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