Escape from God's Island

Submitted by dalcassian on 24 June, 2014 - 4:11

In ancient Rome, so I read somewhere, a senator, surrounded by his henchmen and servitors, would walk with a strutting, rolling gait akin to that of a present-day sumo wrestler. It was a mark of status. To reproduce that literally in a dramatic modern portrayal of a Roman Senator - imagine a performance of Julius Caesar in which Mark Anthony, Brutus, Cassius, Caesar and the others all walk like that - could produce only hilarity. Reality has to be translated into terms intelligible to the audience. So too with the film Angela's Ashes, set in the slums of Limerick.

As everyone who encounters newspapers or TV knows by now, Angela's Ashes is an account, seen through the eyes of a child, Francis, of a starveling family who come home from Depression-ridden America to the Limerick City of the 1930s and 40s.

The father, Malachy, finds work hard to get and, when he gets it, impossible to keep. When he has wages, dole money or a windfall, he drinks it. Finally, he deserts the family.

In work or out of it, the children and their mother go without. The mother, Angela seems to be perpetually depressed. The two youngest of the four children who come from New York die in Limerick; others are born; birth control is unknown. So are amenities such as lavatories and taps. Francis almost dies of typhoid.

Yet Francis survived the squalor, hunger and degradation and, after a life as a teacher in the USA, Frank McCourt wrote an autobiographical novel about it, a good one, on which this film is based. It covers the period between the family's return, defeated, from New York, when he was four or five, to his "escape" back to the USA as a teenager, soon after the end of the Second World War. His leaving Ireland functions for the film as a climactic dramatic device. Angela's Ashes might have been called: "Escape from God's Island".

To cope with the problem of making Limerick 60 years ago intelligible to a modern audience, the film both softens and sweetens - when the drunken Malachy knocks over a lavatory bucket and collapses in the mess, happily it contains only liquid - and caricatures elements of what it portrays. Natural effects are made to stand in for social relationships. There are few scenes in which it is not raining. Everything in this world is wet, cold-looking, inhospitable, bleak. Rain, eternal, never-ceasing rain, and the aftermath of rain, are used to suggest a hostile social and physical environment - a world and a society seriously out of kilter.

In David Mamet's film Hoffa, most scenes are set in wintry weather, and it works powerfully to suggest bleak working-class conditions and working-class life as a struggle against a hostile environment. In King Lear, Shakespeare famously uses the elements, a storm, in this way; but would it work if the storm raged through most of the play? In Angela's Ashes the rain is almost one of the dramatis personae. Ultimately it rots the film's credibility. You begin to wonder why the people have not evolved webbed feet and gills.

People splash dramatically in puddles, with no effort to keep dry; a sober Malachy goes out in the rain dressed only in a shirt; the uninhabitable ground floor of the house where they live is under inches of water and the children just splash through it, soaking their boots. These are people without the wit to cover themselves or make a dry passage through the water out of boards or stones. They would catch pneumonia. Frank McCourt, in his book, knows about pneumonia; the film's director, Alan Parker, seems not to have heard of it. You are forced to the realisation that this could not be a portrait of real people in a real environment.

Smaller details, too, are annoyingly wrong and anachronistic. Famished people, who would have to conserve every scrap, throw away inch-long cigarette ends. Fleas lead Malachy to immediately destroy their only mattress (he doesn't in the book). Sometimes it is ridiculous. Malachy is a North of Ireland man who drunkenly sings nationalist songs and knows altar-boy Latin. Yet the aul ones of Angela's Limerick family talk of him as of one with something of the "Presbyterian" in him. Northern equals Protestant. The parochialism that a North-of-Ireland man would encounter in Limerick is translated here into senseless kitsch anti-Protestantism.

Where the film shows the cramping restrictions, exclusions and prejudices faced by the destitute family, it does it in crudely contrived scenes. Francis wants to be an altar boy; his father teaches him the Mass Latin and takes him to see the priest - who slams the door on them. In fact, recruitment and tutoring of altar boys would have been done through the school.

Bullying, all-powerful teachers endlessly lay about them with straps on the soft flesh of the hands and legs of terrorised and defenceless children. They are beaten or manhandled for every "wrong answer" or infringement of discipline, and sometimes for the teacher's mood or whim.

Even here, the softer image of the strap is used so as not to lose credibility. In reality - and in Frank McCourt's book - the teacher would bestride the classroom armed with a long curved-end, Charlie Chaplin style, bamboo walking cane, slashing at hands and legs and, to intensify terror and tension in the classroom, loudly crashing the cane on desks. Split canes would draw blood.

In Frank McCourt's book, the overwhelming sense in these school scenes is of anger and revulsion at the intolerant, bitter zeal of Catholicism triumphant and the cultural narrowness that pervaded this self-torturing society, in the second and third decades of its independence. In the film, this is nigh eclipsed by the physicality of the relations between teachers and pupils, reduced to cryptic references about collecting money "for the black babies" (that is, for Irish Catholic missionaries in Africa), and arrogant chauvinism in a country-voiced uncouth teacher. As with the all-pervasive rain and floodwater, the physicality substitutes for the cultural and historical specifics of the society.

Punches are pulled. Amidst many terrible things, quite the worst schoolroom oppression of that time was the attempt to use a foreign language, Gaelic, as a teaching medium, except in religion and commerce, for children whose language was English and who lived in a society whose language was, and for generations had been, English. It is still English, There is nothing of that in the film. Yet, despite its limitations, the portrayal of Francis's school is the truest thing in the film.

Sentimentality is used to saccharine the concoction. Malachy seeks oblivion in drink when he can. His "gift for the drink" and Angela's fecundity are presented as the prime causes of their poverty. Malachy takes every chance he gets to solace himself with drink, while the children, the weakest and most defenceless members of the family, go hungry. In the narrow, family-centred world of Angela's Ashes, if there is a villain, it is Malachy.

Sober, he is good with the kids he lets go hungry when he has the option of not being sober. He is made likeable by the actor Robert Carlyle. Francis loves him. This mixing of the elements may well be true to life. Here the picture presented of Malachy blunts the jagged, painful truth of the situation. Your natural revulsion is inhibited by the benign, retrospective sentimentality of Frank McCourt as an old man.

I was reminded by contrast of one-time miner Bill Douglas's unrelentingly stark and deeply truthful trilogy about a deprived working-class childhood, seen through the eyes of the child - My Childhood, My Ain Folk, and My Way Home - and of Ken Loach's Kes, more commercial than Douglas's work, but nonetheless a profoundly truthful (and profoundly revolutionary) account of a working-class childhood. Neither Douglas's nor Loach's work uses the false, so to speak sepia-toned, sentimentality of Angela's Ashes.

Much of the reality is softened, but some of it is made harsher and cruder.
The reality of being dependent on charity from the church-linked St Vincent de Paul organisation is horrible, degrading and humiliating enough in itself. Though charity is always cold, yet there are degrees. But here is something that the film-makers can safely make harsher than the book does. McCourt's more subtle and more human - and more realistic, I think - account of relations between supplicants and administrators of St Vincent de Paul funds is made too crudely brutal in the film. Truthfulness is also due to those whom you dislike, either for themselves or for what they are in society.

Even taking account of Alan Parker's reasonable concern to make the film intelligible to a 21st century audience, this is not a full or true portrait of the Irish poor, the propertyless people trying to stay alive in a huckster, peasant, small-bourgeois, and priest-controlled world. The true story is not one of endless passive suffering, but also of numberless rallies and fightbacks. (Workers' Liberty 58 carried a brief account of the contemporary workers' movement in Ennis, 20 miles along the Shannon from Limerick).

The film is entitled to be what it is, an account of passive suffering and endurance. There has been and is enough of that. But this combination of passive suffering and the location of the solution in Frank McCourt's escape gives the film a strangely outsider's view of the world the McCourts inhabit: Angela's Ashes conveys the sense of a visit to an unviable, waterlogged, scarcely habitable place, with no hope but personal escape to another world.

James Plunkett's Strumpet City - which was made into a fine TV series in the 1970s - dealt with life in the slums of Dublin before the First World War. Plunkett's people are, unlike the characters in this film, rounded people who live not only in families but in a working-class community and in a labour movement. The lack of these things distorts the picture of the underneath people of Angela's Ashes.

Here, society exists only as something, mostly unpleasant, that impinges on Francis and his family. It is not something they can act upon. Politics is only the vainglorious, sentimental, drunken nationalism of Malachy. There is no labour movement in this Limerick. In the real Limerick there was and is. Fifteen years before the McCourts' return from America, the Limerick Workers' Council (Trades Council) had, in April 1919, declared itself a Soviet and contested control of Limerick with the British authorities. Where McCourt's book shows militant solidarity in the women queuing for charity, who help and protect Angela, the film has none of it.

Yet I found myself moved by the film - by what was happening to them, by horror at their helplessness in their cold, bleak, comfortless, hungry world. In that sense the film, though to me many of its notes ring oddly, can be said to "work" in its own terms. The acting is, without exception, splendid and convincing. Films that attempt to deal with the experience of working-class people are none too common, and for that alone Angela's Ashes is worth seeing.

Workers Liberty
1998