An adaptation of the popular 1994 Irish novel The Mammy by Brendan
O'Carroll, AGNES BROWNE confirms that Anjelica Huston is as gifted a
director as she is an actress. While her thespian career may have gotten
off to a shaky start under her father John's hand in A WALK WITH LOVE
AND DEATH in 1969, she proved her mettle (and picked up a Best
Supporting Actress Oscar) as the Mafia princess Maerose Prizzi in her father's
PRIZZI'S HONOR. No stranger to Ireland, Ms. Huston was raised there
and she demonstrated her facility with the brogue in John Huston's swan
song, the elegiac and beautifully realized THE DEAD, adapted from a
James Joyce story. It would seem almost inevitable that Anjelica would
move behind the camera to direct and her first effort, the controversial
telefilm BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA demonstrated her capabilities.
But the landscape of Hollywood is littered with the single efforts of many
actors turned directors. In Ms. Huston's case, it was merely a preamble to
this warm and sentimental (and that's meant as a positive) portrait of a
widow struggling to raise her brood of seven in 1960s Dublin.
Anjelica Huston was originally only going to direct the film but when
the lead actress became unavailable, she gamely stepped into the leading
role. After watching the film, it's impossible to think of any other actress
in the part. Most of her previous films have required her to display her
considerable dramatic abilities (think of THE GRIFTERS, for example) but
Ms. Huston has also proven a slyly comic performer as well (THE WITCHES).
The title role in AGNES BROWNE allowed her to be both and she has risen
to the occasion.
Agnes is clearly a survivor, despite all the hardships. When her
husband dies suddenly and she's left to cope with her brood (six boys and
one girl ranging in age from two to 14), she is forced to borrow money from
the local loan shark (an appropriately menacing Ray Winstone) in order
to pay for his funeral. Agnes struggles to earn a living by selling produce
at Dublin's Market Street and is shored up by her best friend Marion (a
terrific Marion O'Dwyer in her film debut). The women joke, trade quips
and dare to dream about such seemingly unattainable things as learning
how to drive a car or attending a concert performed by a popular singer
(Tom Jones replacing the novel's Cliff Richard). Further complicating her
life is a French baker (Arno Chevrier) who offers a chance at romance.
Ms. Huston directs with a sure hand, capturing the small comic
moments in life (i.e., Agnes trying to explain the bodily changes of puberty
to her oldest son) to the more dramatic one germane to the story (e.g.,
her clash with Winstone's loan shark, an unexpected illness). She also
has a terrific ability with actors, whether they are the children (particularly
the older ones played by Niall O'Shea and Ciaran Owens) or adults
(Winstone, Chevrier). Her own central performance as Agnes is a towering
creation that ranks among her best work. Ms. Huston also is generous
enough to share the screen with her costars, especially with Marion O'Dwyer,
who nearly steals the film. Her portrayal of Marion Monks is so spot-on one
is tempted to think that she is not even acting. There is a natural warmth
and chemistry between the two women and one easily accepts that these
two people have been longtime friends.
AGNES BROWNE is a beautifully rendered and evocative portrait of a
spirited woman that also showcases the considerable talents of its
director-star and should not be missed.
Rating: A -
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.