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“Agnes Browne” is adapted from Brendan O’Carroll’s best-selling Irish novel “The Mammy”. It is set in Dublin in 1967 and it sees the return of Anjelica Huston to the role of director/actor. This is a tender, sentimental story about a woman, Agnes Browne (Anjelica Huston), who is a recently widowed mother of seven children – six boys and one girl, ranging in ages from two to fourteen. Huston is keen, as director, to identify life’s values and resilience against the odds. Agnes’ life runs from one crisis to another, where money to provide for her and the children are paramount. To pay for her husband’s funeral, she had to borrow from the local loan shark Mr Billy (Ray Winstone). In a macabre kind of way, the funeral provides one of the more amusing moments of the film, when the hearse breaks down on the way to the cemetery. By the time the coffin arrives, the mourners become confused as there are two other services going on at the same time.
The children are her lifeline, and she aims to keep them together in these hard times. Her best friend, and co-worker at a fruit and vegetables market stall, Marion Monk (Marion O’Dwyer) keeps her sane and is a source of inspiration. Agnes would like nothing better than an easier lifestyle for the family and the occasional night out, especially when its known that Welsh legend Tom Jones is coming to town to perform in concert. The money is too thinly stretched between debts, welfare and the kids.
Agnes is surprised when a French baker Pierre (Arno Chevrier) takes a romantic interest in her. She begins to date him, and it takes her mind off other worries temporarily. Things get a bit desperate as one of her boys, Mark (Niall O’Shea), takes after his late father and gambles with the loan shark Mr Billy. He feeds on widows struggling to make ends meet without men in their lives. He takes particular aim at Agnes Browne. By the time Marion is diagnosed with breast cancer, you wonder what else might go wrong.
The film has a certain ‘adult’ aspect – not a film with fast-consuming teenagers in mind. But it’s an ode to working-class stoicism and female endurance. Huston’s film is mushy and admirable. The best parts of the film deal with Agnes and Marion. They share everything, from joy to frustration, as the other characters provide the window dressing to their special friendship. Anjelica Huston lights up the screen as the strong, feisty Agnes, while Marion O’Dwyer portrays a ‘real’ person – very likeable. They make the film work. Ray Winstone, underused as Mr Billy, again shows his acting strength. Even Tom Jones plays himself in a film set in 1967!
It’s a worthy accomplishment for Huston in her dual role. Her screen presence is charismatic and she gives enough precision as director – keeping it simple and easy-to-follow, and although it could be viewed as over-sentimental, is a feel-good movie.