A voiceover opens this screen adaptation of the best-selling memoir, revealing the wit that has made Frank McCourt a world-renown writer: "When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how my brothers and I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
It's the Depression. Following the death of their infant daughter, Mr. McCourt (Robert Carlyle) moves his wife Angela (Emily Watson) and their four children from New York back to Ireland. The poverty stricken family settles down in rain-sodden Limerick, Angela's hometown. The filth and the squalor there are so bad that the young twins get sick and die. Whenever Dad lands a job, he spends the money on booze. Angela calls him "worthless," and her Catholic relatives heap abuse on him since he's both a Protestant and a northerner.
Young Frank McCourt (played at various ages by Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge) loves his dad for the stories he tells. And he treasures in his heart a magic moment when his father kisses him. The boy is humiliated by his mother when she begs for scraps of food from the priests at the local charity. He's even more mortified when Angela prostitutes herself with a cousin in exchange for a place to stay after her husband abandons the family. Frank decides to earn money for passage to America. Employment with a local moneylender turns out to be just what he needs to escape from his oppressive life in Limerick.
In a relentless way, director Alan Parker presents the soul-shattering effects of poverty. The McCourts are ignored and shunned. Their lives are stunted by heartbreak, tragedy, and disease. Again and again, they are made to feel worthless by those who are better off. The only two bright lights in Frank's life are a teacher who believes in him and a Franciscan priest who tells the boy to love himself. Although Angela's Ashes misses the mark as an exceptional drama, it does effectively convey the troubles and the truths of the poor.