If you think the prevailing attitude toward sex in the United States is often archaic, consider that of late 1960s Ireland, as depicted in Agnes Browne, the new movie directed by Anjelica Huston. When asked by her best friend, Marion (Marion O'Dwyer), whether she misses "it," the recently widowed Agnes (Huston) replies, "Miss what?"
"The queer thing?" Agnes asks.
"Yeah, the queer thing."
As it happens, she doesn't miss it, primarily because she's never had an "organism" and doesn't even believe such things exist. As for Marion, well, she's had two. She enjoyed both of them, yet is so guilt-ridden over the sexual pleasure, even within her marriage, she thinks it caused the painful lump in her breast and is too embarrassed to see the doctor about it. "Fuck you, Redser Browne," Agnes later says, chiding her dead husband. "Seven children and not one organism to show for it."
Such is the world of Brendan O'Carroll, the Irish writer who first created the Browne family for a radio drama. It's a place where poverty and hard times are borne with a mixture of amusement and profanity; where families of eight or more can inhabit a one-bedroom apartment and still stand together through thick and thin. Having dramatized the Browne family on Ireland's RTE radio for two years, O'Carroll was able to crank out the novel The Mammy in six weeks, only to see it top the Irish best-seller list for 20 subsequent weeks. The Mammy was to be the first of three Agnes Browne novels and is the basis for the film, retitled so as not to offend American audiences ("mammy" simply means "mommy" to the Irish).
Adapted for the screen by O'Carroll and John Goldsmith, the film, under Huston's direction, strongly retains the spirit of the novel -- a tale of a widowed fruit-seller struggling to make ends meet while raising seven children -- and even reproduces much of the dialogue word for word. For the benefit of those who need a villain to hiss at, an antagonist has been added in the person of a loan shark named Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone). Fortunately, with O'Carroll overseeing the adaptation, the character blends in effectively and doesn't seem out of place, though he does create a more tangible sense of tension than the novel possesses. Instead of poverty being the only "antagonist," there's now a malevolent face behind it, a man who's going to collect and seize and go so far as to get the children hooked on gambling. While conventional wisdom holds that even cinematic comedies need a sense of dramatic tension, the addition of such to the novel's generally light story isn't completely suitable.
That's not to imply the story doesn't deal with serious issues. It's just that, like the Irish working-class spirit in general, the film is all about dealing with difficulty through humor, lubricated with the occasional pint of Guinness. There's a simple and powerful scene of Agnes and Marion walking along the beach, both aware that Marion may have developed a tumor but neither one willing to let down her guard and admit it to the other. Both actresses are astonishing: Anjelica Huston hasn't had an interesting role in so long, it's a revelation to see her morph so completely into a character that has nothing whatsoever in common with Morticia Addams, and newcomer Marion O'Dwyer, in her first big-screen role, is more than Huston's equal. The ladies manage to share the spotlight with grace.
The movie's ending is the only part that's problematic. While the novel ended with a touch of magic realism (a tonal departure, but not entirely unbelievable), the movie has amped up the magic realism and interconnected it with the obligatory showdown with the villainous Mr. Billy. It's a change that doesn't work as well on-screen and is additionally undercut with a "surprise" bit of stunt casting that is called attention to in the opening credits.
Given that Agnes Browne clocks in at an efficient 96 minutes, it's too bad some of the book's side plots aren't included, in particular an incident involving Agnes' daughter getting her hair cut by a nun. (It is alluded to when the girl comes home one day wearing a hat, now for no apparent reason.) Perhaps we shouldn't complain when movies feel too short, though, given that cineplexes are crowded with three-hour epics. Always leave the audience wanting more, indeed. There are, after all, two more books about Agnes that could become movie sequels, should there be a demand. In the meantime, those needing their Irish fix will be satisfied and no doubt will leave the theater in far greater spirits than after seeing the soggy adaptation of Frank McCourt's dour memoir, Angela's Ashes.
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