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Movie Review: 'Agnes Browne'

Friday, April 28, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

There's a world of difference between Angela's and Agnes' ashes. Angela's -- in the Frank McCourt novel and film -- were a tragic metaphor for the residue of her life, self-respect and dead children. Agnes' ashes, on the other hand, are just the unsymbolic stuff that falls off all the cigarettes she chain-smokes in the process of keeping her life and family intact.

'Agnes Browne'

RATING: R for language and marital themes

STARRING: Anjelica Huston, Marion O'Dwyer, Arno Chevrier, NiallO'Shea, Ciaran Owens

DIRECTOR: Anjelica Huston

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars


Anjelica Huston is "Agnes Browne," and director thereof, in this charming adaptation of Brendan O'Carroll's best-selling novel, "The Mammy." Set in teeming central Dublin of 1967, it's the tale of a fruit-and-vegetable stand vendor whose husband's sudden death leaves her with seven children to support.

Agnes is a woman of action. Trying but failing to collect her late hubby's pension on the very day of his death, she borrows money from a loan shark for the funeral. It's not exactly a top-of-the-line mortuary: The hearse breaks down en route to the cemetery and has to be hand-pushed to the grave site. Once there, the delayed Browne coffin finds itself in competition and confusion with two others arriving simultaneously.

That such burlesque is pulled off with bittersweet realism as well as humor is a credit to Huston's acting and directing alike -- and to the fine supporting cast she has assembled. Chief among them is Marion O'Dwyer as Agnes' best friend and fellow vendor, the confidante with whom she can discuss such intimate things as "organisms" -- the sexual fulfillment Agnes has never experienced and, in her resignation, doesn't expect to: "If it was rainin' soup, I'd be the one out there with a fork."

But she can dream, can't she? -- specifically, of getting tickets to her idol Tom Jones' upcoming concert in Dublin.

Marion's dream is equally, modestly sweet: After learning she has terminal cancer, she tells Agnes the one thing she'd really like to do is learn how to drive a car before she dies.

O'Dwyer's lovely performance is matched by that of the seven children in Agnes' brood -- notably Niall O'Shea as her eldest and Ciaran Owens as the soulful troublemaker of the lot, snared by the same evil loan shark who hooked his mom. Owens is an astonishing juvenile actor, who played the middle Frank (of three) so brilliantly in "Angela's Ashes." He and his siblings get together to buy Mom a beautiful dress for her fateful dinner-date with French baker Pierre (Arno Chevrier) late in the film.

What Agnes and Angela have in common is the horrible Irish economic crunch: Money, money, money -- the lack of it -- rules their lives. What they don't have in common is the unlikely deus ex machina who comes to Agnes' rescue just in time to turn tragedy into romantic fairy tale.

A tough exterior belies the soft interior of "Agnes Browne," in contrast to Huston's first directorial effort, "Bastard Out of Carolina" (1996), a controversial Emmy-nominated drama about a young girl's domestic abuse. That's why we love Anjelica Huston -- for her unpredictability.

I still marvel over the bizarre role she played in a bizarre Vincent Gallo film, "Buffalo 66," two years ago: Like "Agnes Browne," it wasn't destined for big commercial success. The theatrical runs of such films are over in the blink of an eye. Soon enough, you can only catch them at your video store -- which is what I advise you to do with "Buffalo" and (if you miss her at the Denis) with "Agnes Browne."

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