Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Agnes Browne

By Marc Savlov

APRIL 10, 2000: 

D: Anjelica Huston; with Huston, Marion O'Dwyer, Ray Winstone, Arno Chevrier, Niall O'Shea, Ciaran Owens, Roxanna Williams, Carl Power, Mark Power, Gareth O'Connor, James Lappin, Tom Jones. (R, 92 min.)

Angela McCourt, the Irish heroine-mum of Frank McCourt's witheringly sentimental novel Angela's Ashes (as well as Alan Parker's recent film adaptation) has a twin of sorts in Agnes Browne. Although Mrs. McCourt's straits were dire indeed, however, Agnes Browne (Huston) adheres more to the conviction that life ­ even at its most trying times ­ is not half as terrible as people seem to think it is. She's also a Sixties-era, Dubliner version of Erin Brockovich, complete with the easy laugh, sarcastic barb, and ever-present cigarette dangling from her lip. She even has the many-splendored-brood thing down pat, with six boys and a girl chasing her skirts and stirring up trouble from time to time. Browne is a proto-feminist of enormous emotional resiliency, though even she finds it hard when, as the film opens, she's forced to go to the local loan shark ­ Ray Winstone's thuggish Mr. Billy ­ to secure funds to cover the intervening period between her husband's death and the day her widower's pension will kick in. Agnes Browne is a character-driven piece with a character who seems somewhat hollow. For all her mama-cat hubris, Browne, who goes through familial squabbles and grimly dour, life-changing events like most people go through socks, is oddly vacant of solid emotional connections, at least as Huston plays her. I found myself focusing on Huston's pinched, faux-cheery visage, comparing it to the willowy glamour of her turns in The Grifters and even The Addams Family. She's blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with a face that is simply too aristocratic to carry believably a scenario in which she plays a pauper mum with a heart of gold. Sure, that heart sparkles throughout, but it also overpowers the supposed grit and grim of Dublin in the Sixties. She's too perfect, too lovely for this role. Try as she might (and she does, slowing her gait to a meandering shuffle and staring cockeyed at the world around her), Huston can't seem to get inside the pleasant mope of Agnes, and the film suffers for it. It also suffers from a severe case of not much of anything going on. The plot (taken from Brendan O'Carroll's novel The Mammy)is a threadbare skein of shopworn Irish clichés, from the teeming council flats to the people's unbridled love for crooner Tom Jones (who makes a late and downright silly entrance in the film). Ciaran Owens, as Agnes' street-crime addicted middle child, is a peach-fuzzed plus, and Winstone, who appears to be forging a second career out of playing evil heavies (as in Tim Roth's The War Zone), raises your hackles every time he saunters onscreen, but these two fine characterizations can't do much for what is essentially a rather dull and tremendously predictable film. If only Mike Myers, with his penchant for potty U.K. accents, had turned up as Tom Jones, instead of the real article, this seriocomedy might have been saved. But no, we get old rascal Jones himself, looking much older than he ought to here, slathered with makeup, and gyrating onstage to a smallish, appreciative house. I suppose it's as fitting a denouementas any for a film that mines the clichés as much as this one does.

1.5 Stars

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