June 29, 2008

My Left Foot (1989)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Jim Sheridan
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Ray McAnally

What it's about. Set in Ireland between the 1930s and 1970s. Christy Brown is born into a working class Dublin family. He's different from his multitude of brothers and sisters: he has cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for him to speak. He has only one useful limb, his left foot (hence the title). He is considered to be retarded, even by his own family, until he proves otherwise by dragging a chalk across the floor to spell words.

Brown is actually smarter than the average bear, and thanks to Ireland's socialist health care, Christy receives quality therapy from doctors, especially devoted Eileen (Fiona Shaw). Christy learns to paint with his foot, and soon becomes a celebrity within the Dublin intelligentsia. But his behavior, his excessive drinking, and his difficult, sensitive personality alienates his new friends.

While attending a fundraiser held in his honor, Christy hits on the nurse assigned to him, Mary (Ruth McCable). Christy, who is not shy, works her over. Will he get a date with her, or even marry her, which would admittedly be a more crowd-pleasing ending than to admit that Christy Brown died in 1981, before the age of 50.

How others will see it. My Left Foot was a role from providence for Daniel Day-Lewis, an uncommonly intense method actor. He must have been aware that Academy Awards are given out like candy for actors who play handicapped characters. Cliff Robertson for Charly (1968). Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (1948). Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God, even though as a deaf woman the role was less of a stretch for her. Even characters working with the handicapped can receive Oscars, such as Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker (1962) (of course, Patty Duke also won) and Sondra Locke in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) (Alan Arkin also won, making a near-sweep of actor Oscars that year for roles involving the handicapped). Even characters with mere mental maladies win the coveted award, such as Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1966). Russell Crowe might have won in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind, but a different form of political correctness gave Oscars to Denzel Washington and Hale Berry that year.

Day-Lewis was practically guaranteed an Oscar, and the actress playing his sacrificing mother, Brenda Fricker, also got to take home a shiny little statue. No such luck, though, for Christy's film father, gruff Ray McAnally, who died during the movie's post-production. Also left out was Hugh O'Conor, who plays the young, mute, face-making Christy.

What does My Left Foot have to offer besides watching Daniel Day-Lewis contort his face and speak in a labored mumble? Well, Jim Sheridan is an excellent director, and because of this, most scenes are rewarding. He's also not afraid to show Christy's dark side, that is, the bitterness he shows when he fails to get the love he aches for. Sheridan also dips deep into the well of the Brown family, revealing subplots such as father's difficulty in finding employment and an older sister's unexpected pregnancy.

How I felt about it. My Left Foot is a story of alternating hope and heartbreak. Hope emerges that Christy will become educated, or famous, or accepted outside his family, or even loved, as a man and not as a symbol. But these hopes are often dashed, sometimes because others regard Christy as a freak, or because Christy alienates them with his grating, self-centered behavior. In the entire film, Christy expresses empathy for only two others, his mother and his pregnant sister.

Film biographies must be condensed to fit their story within a two hour window. Thus, we are led to believe that Christy learned the alphabet completely on his own. All of the doctors and social workers that provided therapy to Christy are condensed into the single character of Eileen. We've already mentioned that his 1981 passing was ignored to prevent casting a pall over the ending. Also, Brown's 1970 novel, "Down All the Days", was omitted, although that was his most acclaimed and successful literary effort.

But none of the aforementioned problems truly impair the movie. Christy's budding romance with nurse Mary is mildly annoying, since it occasionally hampers the flow of the movie, which concentrates on his early family life and his uncomfortable attraction for the well-meaning Eileen. My Left Foot is meant to be a triumph, of mind and spirit over body. But its unintended message, that you are expected to mind your place if you are handicapped, is of equal interest.