It is hard to believe that 22 years have passed since My Left Foot dragged Ireland kicking and screaming out of the cinematic dark ages. An astonishingly assured debut from Jim Sheridan, the film was nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Picture. It won 2 acting Oscars for Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker.
The film tells the life story of Christy Brown (Daniel Day Lewis), born severely disabled with cerebral palsy, who grew up in a large, working class family in Dublin. He overcomes adversity to become a famous artist and writer through the use of his left foot which is the only limb he has full control of. In the wrong director’s hands this type of material could become quite mawkish and this reviewer felt a certain trepidation in re-watching a film that has existed only in brief scenes half remembered for the best part of 15 years. Would the film stand up to the ravages of time and memory?
Happily the answer to this is a resounding and slightly surprising yes. One of the reasons for this blog was to hopefully be surprised by a film, to be caught off guard in a real and delightful way. Films have this power but it does not happen as much as one would hope. The real surprise with My Left Foot was how almost totally free of the kind of manipulative sentimentality that the classic Hollywood biopic of struggles is usually full of. There is compassion for Christy Brown but not patronising sentiment. He is treated exactly the same by his brothers and sisters, but is initially ignored by his father who thinks that he is stupid. Only his mother Bridget (Brenda Fricker) sees that he has potential from an early age. The early scenes of Christy’s life (in which he is played by a wonderful Hugh O Connor) are tough with the representation of Dublin life that is grim and poor although there is some Irish black humour to lighten the tone. Indeed Bridget is seen in the first few years of Christy’s life as almost perpetually pregnant which is surely abhorrent considering that it was almost impossible to feed the children they already had.
The left foot of the title lends itself to various parts of the story, both dramatic and funny. Christy uses it to summon help for his collapsed mother by banging on the front door, he scores a penalty in a football match, paints, writes and tries to commit suicide all with this appendage. The first time he picks up the chalk with his foot as a child and writes on the blackboard is an exhilarating and beautiful moment.
The cast of the film are almost without exception superb. O’Connor as the young Christy seamlessly passes the part over to Day Lewis who is astounding. We know now of the legendary lengths Day Lewis will go to for a part including famously staying in character throughout the making of a film. But back in 1989 he was somewhat of an unlikely actor for this part based on previous roles which were a world away from this such as his roles in My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room With A View. But he is mesmerising, not merely with the physicality of the role but crucially he also nails the Dublin accent. One of the most stunning scenes is at a restaurant after an exhibition of Brown’s work. His therapist who he is in love with tells him she is to marry someone else. Day Lewis channels the rage that Brown feels at this betrayal into a harrowing physical and mental breakdown. It is a sad and harrowing scene to watch. Brenda Fricker and Ray Mc Nally both excel as Christy’s parents, particularly Fricker who is heartbreaking. The direction from Sheridan in his feature film debut is superb. His use of the camera from Christy’s point of view as he sits on the floor as a child gazing in wonder and fear at the enormity of the world around him is worth noting. And being a native Dubliner Sheridan knows just when to cut away from scenes to undercut any sentimentality.
Overall, My Left Foot is a magnificent achievement. It is humane, compassionate and funny but more importantly it gets the mix of these just right which is a very difficult thing to do. Its importance in putting Ireland on the world cinematic stage cannot be underestimated. One final point of interest is to note that this film is available to buy on DVD.