Some books cry out to be made into movies. Others scream for filmmakers to resist the temptation ... though their voices are rarely heard. One such book in the latter category would be "Angela's Ashes."
It's not that director Alan Parker's adaptation of Irish expatriate Frank McCourt's best-selling memoirs is a bad movie. In fact, it's a well-acted, imaginatively filmed period piece that is certainly a cut above most, if only for its production values.
But as a printed-page-to-big-screen project, it can't possibly live up to (deserved) expectations. In fact, it doesn't even come close to satisfying them.
Instead, Parker has gotten the dreariness of the material right, but he can't really give us a reason to care about the film's characters. Despite fine performances by the actors playing them, each comes off as rather one-dimensional, or as nonentities.
And despite the film's rather lengthy running time (145 minutes), "Angela's Ashes" feels like it's just skipping over the material as if it were some sort of "greatest hits" package culled from the book.
For example, the movie seems to start deep into the story, circa 1935, as the impoverished McCourt family Angela (Emily Watson), Malachy (Robert Carlyle) and their four children prepares to move from America back to their famine-stricken home country.
Even in back in Limerick, Ireland, the McCourts have a rough times, since Angela's family refuses to aid them and the hard-drinking Malachy is unable to find work and whatever jobs he does find he quickly loses. But through it all, Angela remains steadfast and confident that things will get better.
And that appears to be the case when Malachy finally gets a job in England and promises to send money for food. But those promises go unfulfilled, and Angela is forced to beg for scraps just to pull together a Christmas dinner for her family.
That seems to be the final straw for oldest son Frank (played at different ages by Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge and Joe Breen), who begins entertaining thoughts of returning to America.
Admittedly, that is a rather simplistic recap of the story, considering that Parker and co-screenwriter Laura Jones try to include so much of McCourt's wildly sprawling tales in the movie. The problem is, there's so much story to tell here that you can't possibly do it with any sort of depth, save perhaps with a television miniseries.
But Parker has certainly gotten the atmosphere right. "Angela's Ashes" is one of the most bleak-looking movies in recent history, with cinematographer Michael Seresin rendering everything in flat gray tones.
The end result is that the already-downbeat material takes on an even more depressing air. Fortunately, warm performances from the cast ensure that the film itself isn't a complete downer.
Relative unknowns Legge, Breen and Owens are quite good, while Carlyle narrowly manages to avoid being a villainous stereotype.
Surely the movie's best performance, however, comes from Watson, who portrays Angela as wise, loving and patient to a fault.
"Angela's Ashes" is rated R for profanity, violent beatings (including a schoolyard brawl), male nudity, use of vulgar slang terms and some crude humor, and simulated sex acts.