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Review: 'Agnes Browne' a mealy Irish stew
(CNN) -- Anjelica Huston's "Agnes Browne" is the flip side of Alan Parker's recent nonstop bummer, "Angela's Ashes." Though both films are set in working-class Ireland, the morbid strain of self knowledge that permeates every inch of Parker's movie only makes guest appearances in Huston's work.
You wouldn't think it's possible to be so light-hearted, given the plot. "Agnes Browne" features poverty, the death of a husband, a ruined funeral, breast cancer, the death of a best friend and a grown man slapping around a little boy.
Huston, who stars in as well as directs this film, quickly pooh-poohs any tension that arises from these calamities. She simply marches her rather inadequate cast through its paces, laying on the brogue and the can-do spirit with a trowel.
This cop-out mentality is best illustrated by a restorative visit from Tom Jones, the singing Welsh sex machine. References to a fast-approaching Jones concert abound, and Agnes (played by Huston) is a big fan. But it's laughably inappropriate to have her idol appear out of nowhere, when all seems lost, and casually engender across-the-board healing.
Plodding to the plot
Agnes, a mother of seven living in 1960s Dublin, is in a major bind when her husband suddenly dies. She runs a small fruit stand at the local farmer's market, barely earning enough to pay the rent and put food on the table.
The funeral will wipe her out, so she's forced to borrow cash from Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone), the neighborhood loan shark. This decision turns out to be a significant source of Agnes' post-husband trauma. Mr. Billy made a lot of money off the late Mr. Browne, and he hopes to capitalize on Agnes' newfound desperation to continue milking his deceased client's family.
The funeral sequence sets the false tone for the rest of the movie.
The Browne clan shows up late because the hearse carrying dear old dad breaks down on the way to the cemetery. They and the other mourners are forced to roll up their sleeves and push the car the rest of the way. Two other funerals are already in progress when they finally arrive at the church, so the Brownes run from plot to plot looking for the proper place to mourn.
Of course, they can't help but break into laughter in spite of themselves, apparently because all Irish people are robust, lovable fonts of humanity.
This isn't simply a funeral; we're learning a lesson in how to keep on keepin' on. The characters are driven by a poorhouse nobility that only exists in bad movies.
The script isn't focused enough to generate much interest. There's no discernible urgency, no feeling that Agnes and her kids are in real danger of losing their home or each other. The neighbors pitch in so quickly that every possibly devastating plot twist turns into a psychic Nerf ball. You see it coming, but you couldn't care less once it hits.
The camera work, which could have at least supplied a proper context, isn't much help. Any semblance of grunge is overridden by a flat, TV-movie glossiness.
Two pals, one death, zero satisifaction
Nothing works very well, but not offensively so. A budding romance between Agnes and a thick, lumbering Frenchman (Arno Chevrier) is set up, then basically ignored.
Chevrier is a nutty piece of casting. He's low on charisma and looks like Gerard Depardieu gone to seed, if that's not being redundant.
A dinner scene in which he takes Agnes to a fancy restaurant is handled as a wordless montage, with the two would-be lovers giggling and eating oysters. It looks like it belongs in a different movie, and you probably wouldn't want to see that one, either.
Perhaps the biggest cheat of all is Agnes' relationship with her mouthy best friend, Marion (Marion O'Dwyer). Roger Ebert has sagely pointed out that movie characters with terminal diseases often seem perfectly healthy. Rather than withering away throughout the film, they somehow grow increasingly wonderful, then drop dead when you least expect it.
That's what happens here. Marion finds a lump in her breast, then has tests done at the hospital. You -- and Agnes -- suspect that she is terribly ill, but you find out for sure when she suddenly keels over from what can only be described as an attack of cancer.
The way it happens, you'd think an IRA member shot her with a silencer.
"Agnes Browne" contains some violence and a lot of F-words that are filtered through such an intense accent, you may not recognize them. There's talk of sex, including an embarrassing discussion between Agnes and Marion about the possible myth of female "organisms." That would be "orgasms" to anyone who's not a complete idiot. Rated R. 91 minutes.
Anjelica Huston does double duty in 'Agnes Browne'
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