ITV3: Sunday 25 October, 10.30pm
Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle leave their Brooklyn tenement in 1935 after the death of their infant daughter, and take their four young sons back to Ireland where they face damp, deprivation, despair and more death. Frank McCourt’s acclaimed memoir of a miserable childhood – “It was of course a miserable childhood,” says the narrator, “the happy childhood is hardly worth bothering with, and the worst childhood is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” – has been turned by English film-maker Alan Parker into a restrained, deeply touching drama of affirmation amidst abject poverty.
Frankie McCourt is the eldest boy in the unhappy family, trying to make sense of a harsh, feudal community that consigns the likes of him to the scrapheap. No wonder he wears a quizzically forlorn expression, a face on him like a pound of tripe, as his unkind aunt notes. There are many memorable moments in a handsome, haunting film that’s notable for finding bleak beauty and baleful humour in such grim surroundings, and for telling in such style a devastating story that seems to echo Dickens, replete as it is with colourful and eccentric characters.
The performances are excellent, especially from the three youngsters playing Frankie from five to 18-years-old. Emily Watson, so shamefully wasted in a nondescript supporting role in The Theory of Everything, here somehow retains poise and dignity even when scooping coal from the streets or begging for scraps from the priest’s dinner table. Robert Carlyle invests the uselessly drunk father with pride and dreamy optimism, a holy trinity according to young Frankie: the one in the morning with his tea and Woodbine, the one who tries so hard to find work but never does, and the one who comes home at night with the smell of whiskey on him.
Frankie is ashamed of his mother’s begging, but he loves his dad. He can’t tell him, though. In Limerick, you’re only allowed to love God, babies and a horse that wins. As the traumatic episodes in Frankie’s life unfold – the travesty of his first communion, the mystery of his cruel aunt’s compassion, the heartbreaking procession of drunkeness and death – it is the narrator’s voice that gives the audience warm reassurance. Andrew Bennett speaks McCourt’s moving words with pith and wit, and we realise, thank God, that someone, somehow, survived this harsh world or rain and tears.