Directed by Jim Sheridan Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan, Kirsten Sheridan, Declan Croghan Review by Virginia De Witt
The story of Christy Brown, Irish painter and writer who, due to severe cerebral palsy, only has the use of his left foot with which to create. The narrative chronicles Christy’s life in Dublin from his childhood to his marriage.
When “My Left Foot” debuted in 1989 it was a triumph for all involved. Despite being helmed by a first time producer, Noel Pearson and director, Jim Sheridan, being cast and shot in Ireland, as well as featuring a beloved Irish cultural hero as its subject, the film nonetheless quickly transcended its local roots and became an international hit. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s a beautifully realized adaptation of Christy Brown’s autobiography of the same name, which is perfectly cast, most crucially with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role.
Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Christy Brown was a breakthrough performance for him, both artistically and professionally. In the mid-80s he emerged out of the British theatre scene as a gifted and compelling film actor with a chameleon like ability to disappear into a part. In 1985 he initially captured critics’ and audiences’ attention with the simultaneous openings of “My Beautiful Laundrette”, in which he played a London punk who falls in love with a young Pakistani man, and “A Room With A View”, a Merchant-Ivory production in which he played a prim Victorian gentleman. His work as Christy Brown, however, surpassed the already high expectations which he had created. His fierce dedication to the role, physically, emotionally and psychologically, pushes his performance to another level, and gives the film a depth and resonance that manages to avoid the appeal to mere pity. Day-Lewis so fully realizes this complex man, that although initially his physical disability and severe speech impediment are disorienting for the viewer, it is Christy’s ferocious spirit and intelligence that we are captive to by the end of the film.
“My Left Foot” was shot on location in Dublin. It begins with a framing situation in which Christy has been invited to a benefit at the home of a wealthy patron, where a nurse is assigned to look after him until he must appear on stage. The nurse, Mary (Ruth McCabe) expresses interest in his book, “My Left Foot”, and begins to read through it, chapter by chapter and thus his life story unfolds in flashback. Flashback structures are often awkward, but Sheridan’s handling of the material is always cogent. As well, he never loses sight of the quiet humor in Christy’s life, despite his family’s often poverty stricken circumstances. Christy’s muttered comebacks to his father’s dinner table bullying, for instance, convey his defiant drollness as he delights in his siblings’ laughter and his father’s furious confusion. Likewise, is Christy’s insouciance as he obstinately continues his painting, while keeping a sharp ear as his mother, (Brenda Fricker) and a concerned doctor, Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw) huddle outside his locked bedroom door, earnestly whispering about him. But even beyond humor, Sheridan allows for the hard won joy in Christy’s story. The extraordinary scene where the family watches as the young Christy (Hugh O’Connor) spells MOTHER in chalk on the floor, is quietly and sensitively observed and yet the scene achieves a real sense of fulfillment at its culmination. As well, Sheridan is determined to end Christy’s story on a joyful note, so he stops at the beginning of his relationship with Mary Carr, and we are informed in a title over the final freeze frame that the couple were married in 1972.
The film is aided enormously by its Irish cast who understand the world into which Christy was born and grew up. Early and mid-20th century Ireland was a poor and deeply religious society, which could often be harsh in its judgments. The Browns’ neighbors have no hesitation in openly calling the young Christy, who has not yet learned to speak or otherwise express himself, a “moron”, for instance. And yet, Sheridan makes clear that the Brown family, and the larger community by extension, have deep ties to one another, and ultimately are extremely proud of Christy. His father, played by Ray McAnally, is a representative figure here. Mr. Brown is a rough edged man frequently given to verbal outbursts towards his children, and yet it’s clear he is truly devoted to his family.
Stage veteran Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown, is Christy’s equally devoted mother.
The connection between mother and son is primary to the story and Sheridan establishes it from the beginning. It is illustrated by the heavily pregnant Mrs. Brown, alone in her small house, laboring to carry her disabled son upstairs to his bedroom. Later, she conspires with Christy to keep hidden a stash of money meant to buy him a proper wheelchair. Fricker shares these early scenes with the young actor, Hugh O’Connor, who matches up amazingly well with Day-Lewis, and vividly conveys all of the young Christy’s fears and frustrations.
As Christy grows up, (Day-Lewis takes over the role at Christy’s 17th birthday party), his adolescent experiences are summed up by a chapter of his book entitled HELL. His torments at the hands of women, particularly, are real enough, and yet Sheridan and Day-Lewis don’t shy away from showing us that Christy can be enormously difficult in his own right. He drinks, indulges in self-pity (he sometimes sits in his room, hunched under a blanket, refusing to speak for hours) and has a temper. In spite of all of this, Sheridan retains his focus on what, in the end, is a friendship between mother and son. Throughout the many problems which Christy and his mother endure, Fricker evinces a supportive warmth but always with a watchful intelligence lying just beneath it. Much as she obviously loves Christy, she is not afraid to confront him.
The film also benefits from Elmer Bernstein’s delicately expressive score which never overpowers in crucial scenes. As well, the cinematography by Jack Conroy, while convincingly depicting a poor Dublin neighborhood via the use of a color palette which relies heavily on browns, grays and dark blues, still manages to be clearly and brightly shot.
Overall, “My Left Foot” is a highly successful adaptation of an unusual story that might not obviously appeal to a large number of people. That it has been able to do so, is a tribute to the talents of all involved.
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