Frank McCourt's book Angela's Ashes is, like so much of Irish verbal history, suffering recollected in hilarity. I call it verbal history because I know from a friend of his that the stories so unforgettably told in his autobiography were honed over years and decades, at bars and around dinner tables and in the ears of his friends. I could have guessed that anyway, from the easy familiarity you hear in his voice on the audiobook he recorded, the quickening rhythm of humor welling up from the description of grim memories. Some say audiobooks are not "real" books, but in the case of Angela's Ashes the sound of the author's voice transforms the material with fondness and nostalgia. McCourt may have had a miserable childhood, but he would not trade it in for another--or at least would not have missed the parts he retails in his memories.
That whole sense of humor is mostly missing from Alan Parker's film version of "Angela's Ashes," which reminded me of Mark Twain's description of a woman trying to swear: "She knows the words, but not the music." The film is so faithful to the content of the book that it reproduces scenes that have already formed in my imagination. The flooded downstairs in the Limerick home, the wretched family waiting for a father who will never come home with money for eggs and bacon, the joy of flying down the street on a post office bicycle--all of these are just as I pictured them. What is missing is the tone.
The movie is narrated by Andrew Bennett, who is no doubt a good actor and blameless here, but what can he do but reproduce the words from the page without McCourt's seasoning of nostalgia? McCourt's voice tells us things he has seen. Bennett's voice tells of things that he has heard about.
The result is a movie of great craft and wonderful images, lacking a heart. There must have been thousands of childhoods more or less like Frank McCourt's, and thousands of families with too many children, many of them dying young, while the father drank up dinner down at the pub and the mother threw herself on the mercy of the sniffy local charities. What made McCourt's autobiography special was expressed somehow beneath the very words as he used them: These experiences, wretched as they were, were not wasted on a mere victim, but somehow shaped him into the man capable of writing a fine book about them. There is in Angela's Ashes a certain lack of complaint, a sense in which even misery is treasured, as a soldier will describe his worst day of battle with the subtext: But I survived, and I love to tell the story, because it is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me. The movie stars Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle as Angela and Malachy McCourt, Frank's parents. It is impossible to conceive of better casting of Angela, and although other actors (Tim Roth, Gary Oldman) might have done about as good a job as Carlyle, how much can be done with that poor man who has been made shifty-eyed, lying and guilty by the drink? We do not even blame him as he leaves his family to starve while he pours their money into the pockets of the manufacturers of Guinness stout: Clearly, he would not drink if it were at all within his control. But he is powerless over alcoholism, and it has rendered him not a man but simply the focus of the family's bad luck.