Agnes Browne: Anjelica Huston Directs and Stars in Melodrama about Young Widow

A follow-up to Bastard Out of Carolina, Angelica Huston’s second directorial effort, Agnes Browne, is an intermittently enjoyable but extremely old-fashioned meller about the struggle of a young widow to support her large family.

Set in a Dublin boisterous neighborhood in 1967, and toplined by a strong performance from Huston in the lead role, this intimately scaled heartfelt film will not be taken seriously by the more cerebral critics, but it should play well with less discriminating audiences, particularly women, before landing comfortably on the small screen and in the video bin.

As she showed in her thematically audacious debut, Huston is very good with actors, but she doesn’t bring a particularly strong or fresh vision to her material. Very much a woman’s pic of the old school, Agnes Browne is too soft and benefits only marginally from being directed by a woman. Lack of a discernible female perspective may also be a result of the fact that the screenplay, based on Brendan O’Carroll’s best-selling Irish novel, The Mammy, was co-written by men: the author and John Goldsmith.

The unexpected death of her husband throws Agnes Browne (Huston) and her seven children (six boys and a girl, ranging in age from 2 to 14) into an emotional turmoil and a severe financial crisis. To honor her hubby with the funeral he deserves, Agnes is forced to borrow money from an insidious loan shark, Mr. Billy (played by the splendid Brit thesp, Ray Winstone), a ruthless man who refuses to make special concessions for widows or children.

A big, tall earth mother type, Agnes devotes herself completely to making ends meet and giving her brood good education. The film’s best scenes take place at the noisy and colorful Market Street, where Agnes sells fruit and vegetables. Congruent with the tradition of such mellers, central theme concerns female bonding. Here, Agnes cultivates a friendship with her neighboring vendor, Marion Monks (Marion O’Dwyer), who becomes her confidante. It’s Marion who encourages Agnes to go out and have some fun outside the confines of her home.

Agnes’ dream is to be able to buy a ticket for a live concert of Tom Jones. Indeed, the film’s second half unfolds as a warmhearted, whimsical fable–Irish style–of how she achieves her fantasy. A French baker, Pierre (Arno Chevrier, who looks and sounds like the young Gerard Depardieu) shows romantic interest in Agnes and, after some hesitations and deliberations, she accepts his invitation. Agnes’ loyal and appreciative boys save their pennies and buy their mom a nice dress for the event.

There are some complications, as when Marion gets seriously ill, or when one of Agnes’s boys takes a loan from Mr. Billy and is unable to meet its terms. But, with the exception of Marion’s death, all obstacles are resolved in this Christmas-like yarn in time for Agnes not only to get a ticket to the Tom Jones’ concert, but also to be escorted by the singer.

Essaying a credible Irish accent, Huston gives a charming performance that holds the schmaltzy story together with her characteristic humor and occasionally even edge. She gets wonderful support from Irish stage actress Marion O’Dwyer, who makes a most impressive screen debut here. Film suffers considerably when the femmes are not onscren, which, fortunately, is not too often. On location shooting in Dublin enhances pic’s authentic look.