"Angela's Ashes" is such a sad, stunning failure as a film of the book that one has to look for reasons beyond the commonplaces of ineptitude or misunderstanding. The novel/memoir of Frank McCourt was a masterful evocation of the agony and humiliation and rage and love that filled the life and dreams of a young genius who'd been set down in hell and ordered to survive.
The film's director, Alan Parker, has a long and distinguished list of powerful adaptations to his credit, including the brilliant "The Commitments," "Mississippi Burning," "Birdy," "Shoot the Moon," and "Midnight Express." Robert Carlisle and Emily Watson, his leads here, have much excellent work to their credit; Watson, in particular, seems made for the role of Angela, and the various children who play Frank and Malachy at different ages are fine as well.
What went wrong, it seems to me, is a script -- by Parker and Laura Jones -- that's composed of nothing but snippets of lines and scenes from the book, laid out like a children's primer, and intended to evoke the passion and power of the lives that faced catastrophe every moment of every day, every night, every hour. So we get Carlisle as Dad the drunk, seen a half dozen times in the film staggering up the street to home, having spent the family's money on liquor. What we don't get is any sense of who he is, why he's drunk, what makes him still hold some attraction for his children, and why, when he finally goes to England to find work, he never looks back.
And what we don't get is any sense of who Angela is, why she has the strength to hold her family together in the face of unspeakable horrors, how she finds the will to survive it all, to deal with the kind of Catholicism that intends only to destroy her.
The key to understanding both figures lies, I admit, in the interstices of the book, between the lines, in what is implied rather than in what is said. Frank McCourt's recollection of moments, episodes, adventures, experiences are the life story of a child/boy/adolescent/young man illuminated by the light of adult understanding. The film gives us those, and they are Dickensian enough, with both the wit and the pain making them more like than unlike those of other boys we know. But those recollections are not what give the book its power. It is the understated view from the boy's perspective, of Angela and her family, and their own relationships with each other, the humiliations and the little kindnesses, the texture of their lives, that we ultimately respond to in the book, and that is exactly what is missing in the film.
The film is a series of endlessly repeated shots -- of muddy streets, of flooded floors, of flea-ridden beds, of children playing street soccer, of drunken staggers, of empty plates, of schoolroom humiliations, of turnings-away by charities. Instead of adding power all these repetitions simply dull us, take away any sense of the empathy we came so prepared to feel. We end up asking what's become of Parker's already-proven ability to find the core of his people, and the answer must lie at least partly in his co-scriptwriter Laura Jones, whose previous work includes the windy, empty, shallow "Oscar and Lucinda," "A Thousand Acres," and "The Portrait of a Lady." In any case, this sad failure of a film is just the hollow shell of what was a triumphant achievement as a book.