Agnes Browne

(Anjelica Huston, USA/Ireland, 1999)


As it is packaged for export, Irish cinema comes to us, for the most part, like Latin American cinema: frothy, earthy, full of "peasant" charm and commonsense wisdom. Forget Ireland’s sophisticated, independent, political or adventurous movies – in the eyes of the rest of the world, they may as well not exist.

Anjelica Huston is an American writer-director, but Agnes Browne is in every respect an Irish film, co-produced by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot [1989]) and co-written by Brendan O’Carroll from his novel. It begins gamely enough, as Agnes (Huston) applies for a widow’s pension – within mere hours of her husband’s death.

Agnes is a predictably resilient creature. She occasionally has a cry or loses her temper, but generally handles the community, work and seven children with grace, resourcefulness and good humour. And when the fun times start to fade, there’s always Marion (Marion O’Dwyer) to jog her into an appreciation of daily life’s little escapes.

Huston’s telemovie about incest, Bastard Out of Carolina (1996), was a confronting debut. This time, she aims for relaxed, audience-friendly whimsy, and mostly achieves it. There are no ambiguities: loan shark Billy (Ray Winstone) is a bad guy, French cook Pierre (Arno Chevrier) a nice guy.

Apart from a few ribald jokes about the female "organism" shared between Agnes and Marion, the film avoids the question of Agnes’ sexual life. And its treatment of serious illness is heartfelt, but similarly evasive.

Huston expends more energy working references to singer Tom Jones into the flow of proceedings – leading to an amusing cameo which encapsulates the low-level ambitions and pleasures of the project.

© Adrian Martin July 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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