My Left Foot (1989), dir. Jim Sheridan
Daniel Day-Lewis is probably one of the most lauded actors working in films today. Since the release of There Will Be Blood in 2007 I've noticed a significant resurgence in his career, as he laid low for much of the '90s and the better part of the last decade. There Will Be Blood was the first film of his I had seen, though I've often heard of his performance in My Left Foot tossed around for years. It is that reputable performance that really put him on the map, and given with how impressed I was with his performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood I thought I'd check it out.
For those of you who have not seen it, My Left Foot is the story of Christy Brown, the real-life Irish painter/writer, who stricken with cerebral palsy, overcame his severe adversities to become something of an international sensation. After a brief opening, with Day-Lewis as the adult Christy Brown attending a banquet in his honor, we are thrown back into Christy’s childhood. Born into an immense family, in his early years he is regarded as an invalid by his working-class father and siblings. It is his mother alone who, perhaps through maternal instincts, can recognize that Christy can think and feel just as well as the other children. His body, with the exception of his left foot, is palsied, and his face is in a constant state of flux as it twitches spasmodically. For the film’s span of the early years of Brown’s life, young Christy Brown is played convincingly by Hugh O’Conor. It is during this period that Christy learns to manipulate his left foot to first allow him with great effort to write, and then to paint. There is a particularly poignant scene in which Christy writes his first discernable word on the floor with a piece of chalk. It is the word “Mother”. It’s a tearjerker of a scene, because Hugh O’Conor does such a great job of letting us feel Christy’s frustrations. But it is also compounded by the fact that the audience is shown that Christy is indeed a mentally able person long before other characters in the film learn that it. There is a particular cruelty in this, because a few of the other characters do so maliciously. I refer an earlier scene where Christy’s parturient mother falls down a flight of stairs, knocking herself unconscious. Christy uses his good foot to fling himself down the stairs after her, and proceeds to pound on the front door to get the neighbors attention. When they arrive they think that she fell down the stairs while carrying Christy, and curse him has being a blight on her and the family. After Christy writes his first word, however, it becomes clear to all that he is anything but an invalid. His father goes so far even to carry him off to local pub, proclaiming his son to be a genius.
At age 17, Day-Lewis takes over as Christy, who by this time is an already accomplished painter. He soon gains the attention of a woman doctor who specializes in patients suffering from cerebral palsy. She brings Christy to her school, where she teaches him to speak. It’s something of a shock when we see Day-Lewis play the adolescent Christy. He looks about ten years older than the actors who play his siblings, many of who are supposed to be years older than him. Day-Lewis, unlike Hugh O’Conor, is familiar enough to where we know there’s an acting job going on here. Unlike the brief opening scene, where Day-Lewis as the adult Christy has his facial expressions much more under control, as the adolescent Christy his facial expressions have a wild, yet contrived series of movements to them. They simply aren’t as believable as they were with O’Conor playing young Christy. This is understandably very difficult to do, as there is always a certain level of empathy an actor must employ when approaching a role. But with a horrible condition such as cerebral palsy is, anything else, especially by an actor as well known as Day-Lewis, will only be referential. I’m being horribly nitpicky, yes, because my own perceptions aside, this is undoubtedly a bravura performance. Day-Lewis, like O’Conor before him, really lets us feel Christy’s frustrations with great sympathy. Christy is really just a normal boy, who loves to play football with his friends, and is driven by the same hormones that makes him lust for women. It is inspiring to see Christy play football as the goalie, blocking the ball with his head, and delivering a precise penalty kick with that remarkable foot of his that sends the other team’s goalie jumping out of the way in fear. But it is also painful to see him rejected by women whom he sends beautiful watercolors he has painted. Christy also develops an attraction to the doctor who teaches him to speak, but this ends in heartbreak as well.
By his late teens Christy becomes a voracious drinker. It is soon after then that he abandons painting and takes to writing, typing each letter with meticulous stabs with his toe. The banquet we see Christy attending at the beginning of the film is in recognition for his contributions as a writer. All throughout, the film vacillates between his conversation with his future wife, Mary Carr, at that banquet and his childhood story. And by the end, we are shown that Christy had overcome his adversities and succeeded in creating a fruitful existence for himself.
It is difficult to be critical of a film that deals with inspiring and uplifting material such as Christy Brown’s story is. There is a certain danger, which luckily this film managed to avoid, of being overly sentimental. No one scene in this film is in any way sugar coated, and Christy’s story is attenuated in such a fashion that the viewer feels he/she is only given the essentials needed to grasp why Christy Brown was such a significant human being. A film’s musical score can be particularly precarious in films like this, as they are often gushing with treacle. Elmer Bernstein’s score thankfully has none of that, but it is almost so utilitarian that it often goes unnoticed.
This film really rests upon the performances of the character of Christy Brown. It’s a huge undertaking, because so much sensitivity is required. Day-Lewis, despite my minor critiques, really delivers here, as does Hugh O’Conor. It really something of a spectacle to see such an adversity-stricken individual conquer the same obstacles that we all must face, and even gaining fame in mediums difficult for the most brilliant of people to achieve. Christy Brown’s story is indeed one that will inspire, and the performances in My Left Foot are ones that you will be moved by with a sense of awe.