Movie Review: My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989)
“A film about life, laughter, and the occasional miracle.”
My Left Foot (1989)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan
Synopsis: The story of Irish painter and writer Christy Brown, whose severe cerebral palsy left him able to control only his left leg.
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Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot is a movie in which two inspirational stories reside. The first, and most obvious, is that of Christy Brown, the Irishman who overcame the crippling disabilities wrought by cerebral palsy to become an internationally renowned writer and painter. Born, in the midst of the depression, into a large working class Dublin family, Brown’s life would have been hard enough even if he hadn’t been born with the ability to control only his left leg. As he grows, many in his community dismiss him as a retard because of his severe disabilities, but Christy’s mother, Bridget (Brenda Fricker – Veronica Guerin), never doubts that within that fragile, broken body there lives a normal young boy who deserves the same love, care and patience that she gives to all her children, and it’s from her that he receives the encouragement to try and communicate by writing with his left foot. Later, at the age of nineteen, the therapeutic treatment he receives from Dr Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) gives him a much greater measure of control over his body and speech, and it’s fair to say that without these two remarkable women, the Christy Brown who became a best-selling novelist simply wouldn’t have existed.
The literary success enjoyed by Brown comes from the innate desire within us all to express ourselves in any way we can, but the true force that drives him in the film is far simpler and more basic. He might be trapped in a near-useless body, but Brown has the same needs and desires as any other young man, and his frustration at being unable to emotionally connect with a woman is palpable. Financial security is a welcome consequence of his literary success, but it’s far less important to him than to have a woman love him without pity. It’s with Brown’s realisation that he is finally within reach of achieving that goal that the film reaches its emotional zenith, and Sheridan wisely chooses not to explore Brown’s later years, which would have required a journey through ever-darker avenues completely at odds with the film’s aim to inspire.
The second source of inspiration is Daniel Day-Lewis (Stars and Bars, Eversmile, New Jersey), a method actor who immerses himself so deeply in his parts that he effectively becomes that character for the duration of the shoot. The opening shot of My Left Foot sees the toes of a foot dextrously pluck a vinyl album from its sleeve and place it on the turntable of a portable record player. Without cutting, the camera travels up the twisted body of the foot’s owner to reveal that it belongs to Day-Lewis. One can only wonder how long he must have laboured to perfect that move for the sake of fifteen seconds of screen time. Some actors struggle with accents, but Day-Lewis not only delivers a completely convincing Irish one, he pushes it through contorted lips from a body that appears wracked by uncontrollable spasms. And, although deprived by his subject of recognisable facial expressions, he never leaves us doubting Brown’s thoughts or emotions, or loses sight of the fierce spirit that drove the man to achieve so much in his short and difficult life.
Brown was a man of fine intelligence trapped inside a broken body, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that he could be a difficult man to get along with. Thankfully, Sheridan’s portrait refuses to flinch from showing Brown’s cantankerous and sometimes spiteful nature, as well as his increasing dependence on alcohol. And it’s because Sheridan and Shane Connaughton’s script makes Brown such a fully-rounded, warts-and-all individual, rather than a bland symbol of triumph, that My Left Foot can tell an uplifting story which will live long in the viewer’s memory without resorting to sentimentality. One of the best films to come out of Britain in the 1980s, My Left Foot is a film not to be missed
(Reviewed 18th October 2016)