Angela's Ashes

(1999) *** R
145 min. Paramount. Director: Alan Parker. Cast: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge.

Alan Parker's reverent adaptation of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes is likely to please devotees of the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller. Those few who haven't yet read the book, however, may wonder what all the fuss is about. Like many of this year's highly touted films, Angela's Ashes delivers the goods with skill, but still lacks the distinction of greatness.

Parker dutifully recounts the life of McCourt (played in three successive stages by Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge), father Malachy (Robert Carlyle), and mother Angela (Emily Watson). The ground covered is surprisingly familiar, even for non-initiates, beginning with the passive-aggressive alcoholic father and ending with the triumphant escape from squalor for the child with that extra-special something.

Ironically, this story feels wrung out even though many of its memorable incarnations in years past were fictional, and here, it is finally, grandly, eloquently true. Parker knows how to make this work, though, with proper doses of drama, humor, and lyricism. The acting is sufficient, but Watson typically looms over the rest of the cast, nailing the rollercoaster hope and resignation of Angela. Visually, the film is lovingly rendered, perhaps too self-consciously; while the design doesn't skimp on the squalor, it still lacks the true grit of, say, a Jim Sheridan picture. John Williams rounds out the package with a lovely and emotionally effective score. There's enough here for a confident recommendation, but sadly, the cumulative result feels slightly more like the package than the real experience.

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