My Left Foot

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/13/11 22:41:38

"It's good, but is it art?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Christy Brown was a complicated, difficult man. Jim Sheridan is a broad, sentimental director. Yet together they make the former's story something both worthy and entertaining.

In early 1930s Dublin, Christy Brown is born into a large, impoverished working class Irish family to Bridget (Brenda Fricker) and Paddy (Ray McAnally), is the youngest of their crop of children and is also terribly afflicted by cerebral palsy.

Unable to communicate properly and with the only limb he has any real control over his left foot, Christy is allocated a space to live under the stairs on a mat while the rest of his family congregate around the table. It may sound terribly cruel, but space is tight and times are hard - even more so caring for a son so tortured by disability that neighbours tut at him being a burden on his mother and others wonder what place God has made in the world for him. Through sheer determination however, Christy masters control of his one useful limb and soon reveals he is much more intelligent than given credit for and also has a strong artistic streak in him - one that comes to the fore when we see him develop into an adult (Daniel Day-Lewis).

I can't imagine how hard life must be if you're a person with a similar condition to Christy's, or if you're a parent or family member how hard it must be to devote yourself so fully and unflinchingly to someone else's care. And being honest, the film doesn't make much of an attempt at the former, either. Brown's artistic work is vivid and striking and, like every artist, is irrevocably tied into their own character and circumstances. Yet that's not a connection the film ever makes. Never do you really feel that Christy is pouring his anguish, fear and bitterness into his work, and never do we feel the link that his condition is precisely what makes him a great artist. No, the film just shrugs a bit and takes no great interest into why he was great - he just is.

It does make a much better fist at the second perspective on Christy's life, however. Sheridan always draws in broad strokes, but he at least here has an honesty to his work. He feels the situation deeply, which makes scenes like the Brown family stealing some coal or the Brown family starting a fight at a funeral, that could come off as either cliched or mawkish in the wrong hands, seem genuine and real. Put it this way, imagine Ron Howard directing this and try not to shudder.

Instead, if it's not a great film about art, it does become a greatly moving film about family and struggle. McAnally and Fricker are both great as Christy's parents, the first bluff and blind to his son's condition, the second gentle but resolute; and their work leads to one of the scenes that really touches greatness - when Paddy sees his son's first attempt at communicating, hoists him on his shoulders to take him to the pub where he proudly declares him as his son, it'll take a stronger man than I not to snuffle a tear or two away. Again, Sheridan swerves mawkishness time and again. He never makes Christy a saint, showing how bitter and angry and spiteful he can be and how exasperated he can make the family at his moods - one of the great laughs in the film (and it is surprisingly funny at times) is Paddy's grumbled reaction to his son trying to read out Shakespeare out loud upstairs.

But of course, the centrepiece to the film is the astonishing performance of Day-Lewis as the adult Christy. Portraying someone with cerebral palsy does mean an inevitability that the performance is going to rely on physical ticks and vocal inflections, but Day-Lewis does more than master those (it takes about five minutes and then you forget that Day-Lewis is someone with full physical ability. You really would think you're watching a disabled person here), he suggests the depths of feeling that reside within Christy. A fiercely articulate man raging against his inarticulate body, it's simply a performance that can be matched against any other in cinematic history that you'd care to mention. Brooding, melancholy, passionate, witty, charming - Christy is a ragbag of conflicting emotions and Day-Lewis keeps a firm hand on all of them, capturing Christy as a fully-dimensional man with problems that go beyond his physical frame and never makes him feel like a performance searching for pity. I would guess that most people would single out a dinner and drinks party that goes horribly wrong as Day-Lewis' finest moment, but I think there's one better. It comes as a sulky Christy has told a therapist to "fuck off". Her response, which makes him laugh, is one of someone amused but so determined to hold the moral high ground by being in a mood, is a little bit annoyed that they've let themselves laugh, before realising how silly they've been. Day-Lewis not only captures this all in one facial reaction, he does it while channelling someone with the facial and body tics of cerebral palsy. As I say, it's a performance to rank alongside any other.

Day-Lewis' performance shouldn't fool you into thinking you've seen a great film - on a simple technical level, the framing is all out with several boom mics being quite visible throughout - and it's an undeniably simplistic portrayal of a complicated man. But it's also an undeniably powerful and moving portrayal of a man whose story deserved to be told.

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