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.


My Beautiful Laundrette

April 23, 2012

My Beautiful Laundrette is a sneaky little movie. It unspools so languidly, and plays its cards out so coolly, that you can’t quite figure out where it’s headed until at least halfway through. By that time, however, the considerable charms of the film will have worked their influence.

The subject matter presents an unfamiliar and exotic milieu. The main characters are members of London’s Pakistani subculture, who have their own customs and hierarchy.

At the top of the heap is Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), an entrepreneur with vaguely underworldish connections. As a favor to his brother (Roshan Seth, who played Nehru in Gandhi), he agrees to give nephew Omar (Gordon Warnecke) a start in the world of business. Omar can wash cars at Nasser’s garage.

Well, it turns out Omar has a natural savvy for capitalism. Within days, he finagles his way into managing one of Nasser’s rundown launderettes—a low rung on the ladder, to be sure, but Omar has bright dreams of success. First, a laundrette dynasty, then…who knows?

By chance, Omar runs into a former school chum, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, last seen as the prig in A Room with a View), who is now punked-out, roaming the streets, and harassing “Pakis” like Omar. But Omar offers Johnny a job fixing up the little launderette, and the business, and a friendship, is off and running.

As it turns out, the friendship between these two is more intimate than you might expect. One of the film’s most ingenious sequences is the grand opening of the refurbished launderette, as Nasser and his mistress waltz among the washers to the Muzak of “The Skater’s Waltz” while Omar and Johnny are doing a different kind of waltz in the back room.

There are plenty of cold realities along the way, like the gangsterism within the Pakistani business world and the vicious punks who want the Pakistanis out. Yet the overriding tone of My Beautiful Laundrette is sweetness.

Hanif Kureishi’s nimble script takes its own time setting up characters and situations. And director Stephen Frears, that fine stylist (The Hit) who has spent most of his career making a score of films for British TV (unfortunately unexported), is in no mood to rush things along. The gentle pace and tone are underwhelming at first, but the cumulative effect is quite beguiling.

My Beautiful Laundrette was filmed for British TV, which explains its modest technical quality. It’s been such a hit at film festivals, including this year’s Seattle fest, that it’s getting play all over the United States. That’s a happy event, but it makes you wonder: Are all British TV movies this good? If they are, those of us without transcontinental-power satellite dishes have been missing a lot.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1986

This felt like the beginning of an interesting moment for a group of Britain’s most talented filmmakers, some of whom were coming back to big-screen work after doing TV for a while (Ken Loach and Mike Leigh included). I’m not sure I would call Frears a “stylist” exactly.