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Theater Review Awkward ‘Agnes’ falls flat

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston follows her directorial debut "Bastard Out of Carolina" with "Agnes Browne," a slight romantic drama about a widow out of Moore Street. Huston also plays the title role, as a mother of seven and a street vendor in that famous Dublin market, who tries to get on with life after her useless husband, Redser, dies in a traffic accident. Agnes doesn’t seem overly perturbed about her spouse’s death, and the struggles she faces in this triumph-over-adversity tale

have more to do with evil moneylenders, bratty children and the fate of her cancer-stricken friend, Marion, than the loss of love and the quest to replace it that one would expect from her screen-widow status.

To get through her difficulties, Agnes relies on the camaraderie of her fellow fruit-and-veg sellers in the street market and in particular her pal Marion (Marion O’Dwyer). This friendship takes precedence over a

near-romance she has with a French baker (Arvo Chevrier), an incongruous character who sets up shop near her stall, and stirs most of the scant emotion in the film when Marion develops fatal tumors. Agnes’s dream of

seeing Tom Jones live in concert sustains her through her tribulations, and the film lumbers toward a moderately happy ending in which the Welsh sex symbol sings "She’s a Lady" to a subdued Dublin crowd and the assembled Browne clan.

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Heavyweight chefs Jim Sheridan and Arthur Lappin from the Hell’s Kitchen production team convene with Huston to raise a light romantic soufflé, and all they come up with is stirabout. From the opening scenes of Agnes’s dumb incomprehension of welfare office bureaucracy to the flat musical finale, the film repeatedly fails to find the right balance of vulgarity and humor that worked so successfully in earlier Dublin-based films adapted from the pages of Christy Brown and Roddy Doyle.

The basic plotline of "Agnes Browne," adapted by comedian Brendan O’Carroll from his own novel ‘The Mammy," remains an underdeveloped diagram, and the

only real improvement in the transfer from paper to celluloid is the replacement of the mother’s original heartthrob, Cliff Richard, with the less unctuous Tom Jones. The characters are sketched in thick crayon

rather than fine pen strokes, as though the film was intended for children, and the cartoon figures of the evil loan shark Mr. Billy (Ray Winstone) and the baker Pierre are unintentionally laughable. The moneylender is straight out of the Anthill Mob, and the wardrobe department stops short of dressing the French Monsewer in striped shirt and beret with a string of onions round his neck, but only just.

Huston herself knows Ireland well enough from growing up there to have acquitted herself honorably in two of her father’s Irish films, "The Dead" and "Sinful Davy," but she’s too stately an actress to play an earthy Dublin street trader with real conviction. Her inexperience in the director’s chair shows in her handling of scenes involving Agnes’s children, and where the drama demands a rowdy pack of tousle-headed young fellas and young ones in lively combat with mother, neighbors and each other, we get an awkward ensemble of surly kids delivering their

lines like it was a punishment to do so.

Films in which the director is also the producer and the star are usually pet projects dear to the heart of the multi-role filmmaker, but it’s difficult to understand why Huston thought this project was so right for her. The film might have turned out more credibly under the direction of its original creator, O’Carroll, who understands this territory better (as well as co-writing the script, he puts in a cameo as a street drunk with annoying frequency).

The book and stage versions of "The Mammy" were enormously successful with Dublin audiences, but lose much of their vitality in this translation to the big screen. The U.S. release in time for St. Patrick’s Day and the big-name producers and star will guarantee "Agnes Browne" plenty of initial interest, but the glum vulgarity of this film

can’t sustain it, and the broad success on the home front is unlikely to be repeated here.

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