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…Or not so much “directed by” as the higher-falutin “An Anjelica Huston film,” as the credits claim. What was stopping her from labeling Agnes Browne “Un film d’Anjelica Huston” I can’t understand.
Anjelica Huston directs herself, Anjelica Huston, in the starring role of this adaptation of Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy. The story follows the whimsical travails and triumphs of newly widowed Dublin housewife Agnes (Anjelica Huston) as she tries to keep her family of seven children fed and to feed her own spunky dreams as well. Like every other quirky woman’s picture set on foreign shores about the spunky dreams of nongorgeous working-class ladies, Agnes Browne fixates on a purveyor of cheesy popular music as a metaphor for the validity of her hopes and transcendence over her class. In this case, the lucky vessel is Tom Jones, whose upcoming concert provides the winsome subplot as well as the flabbergastingly silly climax.
It’s 1967 Dublin, a time and place when no woman would be seen on the street without a full complement of curlers, headscarf, apron, baby carriage, and cigarette. Unable to receive her widow’s pension, Agnes must borrow 40 pounds from the local moneylender—a cartoon loan shark with a leather hat, permanent sneer, and sadistic toady—to pay for the late Mr. Browne’s funeral. The death thing is too cute and a little gamy for a woman of Huston’s age; Agnes explains to the officious young woman in the pension office that it’s Browne with an “e” and Agnes with an “e” as well. The hearse breaks down, and the mourners have to push it to the cemetery; then there’s a funereal traffic jam, which sends the crowds chasing the wrong caskets. The extras mug and gawp at the action as if it’s the zaniest thing ever to hit Dublin, when it’s really only morbid Irish whimsy rearing its disheveled head. But where Agnes goes, it seems, the riveted fascination of all onlookers follows. The story is hers, hers; the old joke about someone so egocentric they’d want to be the corpse at a funeral becomes a little less funny when Huston usurps the scene from the deceased. We are given no sense of what Mr. Browne was like—virtually everyone in Dublin takes a moment to murmur condolences to the widow as she moves through the streets, but someone at the funeral calls him an “eejit.”
Agnes and her best friend, Marion (a radiant Marion O’Dwyer), occupy adjoining fruit-and-veg stalls at the local market, march their babies around town without hardly ever flicking ashes into the prams, and engage in coarse-but-cuddly interchanges about “having the organism” with a man. Agnes’ naivete is hard to swallow, especially in the magisterial person of Anjelica Huston; the actress frames her square face in a dingy scarf and settles in among the masses like Haroun Al Rashid going out among his subjects. Despite her woes—dangerous debts, kids going wrong, manlessness—Agnes is a trooper. She giggles, she sighs, she stands up to the loan shark, she suffers in style, she…she’s Joan Crawford!
Huston’s shameless performance is straight out of the ’40s melodramas that made Crawford and Susan Hayward icons of big-shouldered feminine bravery. And all the characters rally ’round to protect the reign of this working-class queen. One longing glance at an extravagant blue gown in a store window, and her plucky kids rustle up the cash to buy it. The dismissible Mr. Browne isn’t cold in his grave before the new hunk in town (Arno Chevrier), a Frenchman opening a bakery, starts making basset-hound eyes at the widow as she blows smoke all over her bananas. (People smoke so much in this movie that you feel like washing your hair when it’s over.) Agnes and Marion put their headscarves together over innumerable just-us-two gigglefests, but when Marion feels a lump in her “diddie,” well, the consequences will just leave more room for Agnes to fill up with her love of life. On her date with Pierre, they exchange virtually not one word, but then again, his talking might distract from her head-cocking and shoulder-hunching.
By the time someone runs back to retrieve the subplot from some forgotten park bench, zaniness and melancholy whimsy are locked in a battle to the death. A series of unlikely events leads to the grotesque familial mockery of Agnes and Tom Jones, emerging from her shabby house, the singer cradling her baby in his arms, to the cheers of le tout Dublin. Before dedicating “She’s a Lady” to the lady in question, Jones announces to the audience that sometimes “the world comes to a stop and turns its head to accommodate somebody’s dreams—here’s to your dreams, Agnes Browne!” And people thought Striptease was self-indulgent. The megawatt spotlight focused firmly on Huston’s every tic and survivor’s smile make Demi Moore’s ode to her new tits look as measured and nuanced as a Bresson film. Here’s to your dreams, Anjelica Huston! Hollywood has vested you with the power to make them all come true on the silver screen. CP