By Leah Rozen
January 24, 2000 12:00 PM

Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle

Angela’s Ashes opens with the death of an infant. From there, life for the beleaguered McCourt family goes rapidly and relentlessly downhill. More children die. The father (Carlyle) spends on drink the paltry wages he makes at ever more occasional jobs. The mother (Watson), when she hasn’t taken to her bed in depression, does her best to care for her young brood, but her good intentions can’t make up for the lack of food, heat and clothing. The point of no return comes when Dad disappears with money earmarked to buy milk for yet another new baby. Eldest son Frank, still in knee pants himself, finds his father at the pub with his pockets as empty as the beer mugs in front of him. “A man who drinks the money for a baby has gone beyond the beyond,” Frank says in a voice-over.

So too has gone the overwhelmingly bleak Angela’s Ashes, a beautifully photographed but dramatically inert adaptation of Frank McCourt’s lyrical bestselling 1996 memoir of the same name. McCourt wrote movingly about growing up poor in Brooklyn and then Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s, but his tale of a family afflicted by grinding poverty, illness and alcoholism was leavened on every page with humor. The movie, as lachrymosely cowritten and directed by Alan Parker (Evita), is just one big downer. That it rains buckets in nearly every scene doesn’t help.

Watson and Carlyle each have affecting moments, but neither can escape the damp grimness that envelops the movie. Of the three young actors who play Frank at various ages, the middle one (Ciaran Owens) is the standout, with expressive eyes that can go from impish to woebegone in nothing flat. (R)

Bottom Line: Irish eyes are crying-endlessly