My Left Foot

November 21, 2012

My Left Foot is one of the best films of the year, a beautiful story about the Irish writer Christy Brown, a man who was born with cerebral palsy that left him unable to control his limbs, save for his left foot.

Brown was born into a huge, poor Irish family in 1932. Because of his physical disability, which also left him unable to speak for years, he was considered (and regularly called) an “idiot” and a “moron.” Eventually he learned how to write and draw with his foot, whereupon he was able to communicate his intelligence, which turned out to be formidable. He wrote an autobiography, My Left Foot, and found fame.

The film, written by Jim Sheridan and Shane Connaughton and directed by first-timer Sheridan, takes an episodic approach to Christy’s life, concentrating on his childhood and young adulthood. Each episode is like a different chapter, telling a lesson of hardship or triumph.

Lest this subject matter sound grueling or downbeat, be assured that there is a lot of triumph. Sheridan regularly creates vignettes in which Christy clears another hurdle, or gets the better of some thoughtless adversary. As a child, Christy is played by Hugh O’Conor, whose eyes blaze and whose mouth is twisted; a clenched and angry boy.

Yet even here Sheridan finds rich humor, as when Christy’s brothers must hide a girlie magazine in Christy’s wheelbarrow, which serves as a makeshift wheelchair. Discovering the magazine, Christy’s parents bring a Catholic representative to lecture the boy on sin: “You know you can never get out of hell.” An ironic thing to say to a wordless boy who cannot move his body.

Surely the high point of the movie comes when young Christy, still considered retarded, manages to clutch a piece of chalk between his toes and scrawl the word “Mother” on the floor, at which point his father hefts him onto his shoulders and totes Christy down to the pub, for a manly beer.

As an adult, Christy is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the increasingly amazing actor who starred in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Day-Lewis captures the ferocity of a busy-minded man who has a limited outlet of expression. In Christy’s unlucky swings at love, Day-Lewis is utterly unsentimental and even wicked (his most hurtful and unrequited love is for a voice teacher, played by Fiona Shaw, who teaches him to recite Hamlet).

Day-Lewis and O’Conor are superb, and you would be hard-pressed to find more exemplary supporting performances than those of Brenda Fricker and the late Ray McAnally, who play Christy’s parents.

The ghost of the great American director John Ford hovers over the film. Ford, an Irish soul, would have approved of this movie’s gruff emotionalism, particularly a pub brawl straight out of The Quiet Man. Christy starts the fight. He also wins it, as the film demonstrates again and again.

First published in the Herald, December 24, 1989

Daniel Day-Lewis is back as I write this, with a rather amazing performance as the 16th president in a film by Steven Spielberg. (Oddly enough, he’ll get Oscar competition from John Hawkes, in The Sessions, as a man who cannot use his body.) My Left Foot is a fine film, and I remember that Hugh O’Conor was the equal of Day-Lewis as the young Christy, a fact the elder actor graciously acknowledged in his Oscar speech.