A Film by Alan Parker
from a memoir by Frank McCourt
This latest film from Alan Parker, director of the Irish cult hit The Commitments and such quirky Hollywood films as Bugsy Malone (a gangster musical with a cast of children) and Angel Heart (Mickey Rourke as a devil-possessed private detective, investigating a series of grisly murders he turns out to have committed), is a disappointing attempt to bring the eponymous publishing phenomenon to the screen.
The printed version (of which I have only been exposed to a few excerpts) is a wry account of boyhood and adolescence in and impoverished Irish Catholic family which is so dysfunctional that they have to emigrate back to Ireland from the narrator's birthplace in Brooklyn. The movie chronicles the events that make up the bulk of the book, but mysteriously completely ignores the topic of the ashes themselves, which are the catalyst for the author/narrator Francis "Frank" McCourt to journey back to Ireland after a lifetime in the US and confront the ghosts of his past.
Wry humor is much easier to do in print than on film. What makes the un-relievedly bleak story of the family's grinding poverty, their emotional desperation and their moral turpitude bearable in print is McCourt's ability to wring sardonic laughter from the miserable facts. These little jogs, that work well in print, have a totally different impact in the film.
At one point, having described the death of one of his two younger twin siblings in the endless rain and damp of the Limerick slum where the family (literally) settles, McCourt describes the efforts he and his brother Malachy make to care for, amuse and entertain the remaining twin. After a catalogue of the childish shenanigans in which they engage, McCourt reports with pride how his father told him that their charge was lucky to have such wonderful older brothers. The he reports, deadpan, "He died anyway."
On film, the depiction of the older boy's relationship with their younger brother is shown in images, as is Frank's discovery of his death. Voice-over narration reads the story of the boy's pride at the compliment from their father, and the final line. Instead of evoking a painful, ironic smile, the scene falls flat. Because we see the dead child before we hear the line - and because we see the pathetic visual image of him - the effect is broken. It underlines the misery and hopelessness of the situation rather than relieving it with a reference to the absurd contradictions between optimistic expectations and relentless reality.
And the whole film suffers from the same lack of contrast. The episode between Frank and his first lover, a consumptive teenager who later dies, is depicted with a depressing lack of tenderness that makes his subsequent assertion that despite all the misery in his life he had never felt such pain as he did at her death sound like sentimentalist Blarney rather than the anguished howl of adolescent abandonment.
When the pathologically ne'er-do-well father, having impregnated his wife with yet another child (their seventh, to add to the three survivors of the original brood) she lets him go down to the post office to collect the money order sent to help with expenses. It is hard to believe that she is so dense that she doesn't predict exactly what will (and does) happen. It is hard to develop much sympathy for characters who literally and repeatedly demonstrate that they don't have the sense to come in out of the rain.
Perhaps the crowning example is in scenes of the Limerick slum the family rents. It is across from the public outhouse that serves the entire street - a fact they don't ascertain until they have already moved in - although the outhouse is only a few feet from their front door. In addition, the dwelling is at a low place in the street. In the heavy Spring rains, the street floods and sweeps six or seven inches of water into the living room. The family retreats into the attic until the waters recede.
But we see them living in this pestilent hell-hole over the years, as Frank grows from a pudgy six- or seven-year-old to a stripling of sixteen or seventeen. We repeatedly see the McCourt brothers enter the flooded living room and slosh through the nearly ankle-deep water. In all those years, the film-makers would have us believe, no one cares enough or has the simple good sense to throw down some planks or stepping stones from the door to the stairs. Is it possible to sympathize with such monumental stupidity?
To engage the audience, the film would have to give us the relief of occasional humor and a family that had charm and warmth as well as weaknesses and suffering. The family depicted here has an abundance of the latter, and almost none of the former.
The fault has to lie at least partly with Parker, who was also co-screenwriter, along with Laura Jones. The excerpts from McCourts book to which I have been exposed, including a number read by the author on various radio programs, skillfully combine sentimental nostalgia, pathos and ironic humor in a mix that makes us smile through our empathetic pain. Individual episodes from the life are presented with such an absurdist tone of gallows humor that the overall picture of misery and despair fades into the background. In the film, the hopelessness and misery fill the foreground and the wit and charm never manage to develop.
In telling a story of such squalor and affliction (we are repeatedly subjected to scenes of people falling in, dropping and otherwise spraying themselves and others with the contents of chamber pots, as well as lots of vomiting from various causes), it must either be told straight, as a chronicle of the human capacity to bear suffering and a condemnation of the social conditions that create such hardship (Emile Zola"s L'Assomoir for instance), or somehow leavened to make the suffering touching but bearable - rather than - as here, relentless and ultimately tedious.
Yet Parker gets fine performances from his actors. Robert Carlyle, as the irresponsible, alcoholic father, tries mightily to find something charming in his character. He is undermined by the screenplay, which narrates McCourts memories of how much he enjoyed his father's stories over a few brief montages of father and son walking together down country lanes. These scenes are hopelessly weak in contrast with the overwhelming catalogue of injuries and neglect the elder McCourt inflicts on his innocent family.
In addition, it seems unlikely that an Irish, alcoholic father of the period could be as full of self-destructive rage as the man pictured here, inflict every kind of humiliation on his family, yet stop short of physical abuse. This is especially true in light of the fact that one of Frank's acts on the night of his first drunk is to smack his long-suffering mother. It is difficult to believe that McCourt's memoir, painfully revealing though it is, hasn't been bowdlerized in this respect.
Emily Watson, as Mc Court's mother, is the sentimental picture of put-upon Irish motherhood. Although Watson finds opportunities to invest her with intimations of tenderness for her children, playful affection for her husband and even a bit of backbone from time to time, the screenplay refuses to probe into her complicity in the creating the situation in which she finds herself or her emotional reaction to it. We are thus deprived of seeing any real dimension in her character.
The three boys who perform as McCourt at various ages are outstanding. They get all the best lines in the film and inhabit the only character drawn fully enough to be engaging. Hollywood myth has it that children are hard to direct, but the children in this film, the Mc Court boys and those around them, are natural and believable, giving the film its strongest boost of authentic energy. A few of their scenes are the only ones in which it is possible to get caught up and forget that you are watching a movie.
The production values are strong, but applied in support of a tone of incessant wretchedness. Repeated transitional shots of the grey, cold river Shannon, shrouded in fog and accompanied by the mournful, banshee wails of gulls, establish a visual mood that tips the film deep into hopelessness. The grey, drab green and mud brown that are the color scheme underline - totally unnecessarily - the drabness of the lives represented.
And the rain! It may have been a fact that McCourt only experienced sun in about one percent of his boyhood - which the movie would seem to indicate. In the film, the depiction adds a level of over-the-top misery that might have been funny if it had been played that we (as in Monty Python's famous "We Were So Poor We Lived In A Shoebox" sketch). as it is, it leaves you wondering why the entire family didn't do themselves - and the audience - a kindness and just stagger down to the banks of the Shannon and pitch themselves in.
McCourt's book was one of the most popular of the last several years. Watching this overlong, ploddingly-paced film adaptation of a history of misery and humiliation heaped on shame, guilt and emotional barrenness, it is hard to imagine that this is the same story that charmed hundreds of thousands in hard-cover. I don't know exactly what Parker and his colleagues did to the book, but I know that it doesn't work.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.