Midway through My Left Foot, speech therapist Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw, The Black Dahlia) knocks on the door of spastic quadriplegic Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood) and asks whether she can come in. “F--- off,” Christy mutters. Dr. Cole responds with calm pragmatism: “If you work with me, I'll help you to say 'f--- off' more clearly.” Christy smirks to himself, barely able to suppress his pleasure with the doctor's witty rejoinder. It's almost impossible not to smile right along with him, in part because Christy is the sort of man who doesn't smile that often. It's a genuinely uplifting moment, and it achieves the effect that it does because the film has so studiously avoided anything resembling cheap sentiment. Director Jim Sheridan tells Christy's story with empathetic (but never patronizing) realism, ensuring that every moment of triumph feels... well, real.
Much of the film's first half-hour places the spotlight on Christy's boyhood (the younger version of the character is played – quite effectively, I might add - by Hugh O'Conor, Chocolat), which was challenging to say that least. He can't walk, he can't talk and the only limb he's able to control is his left foot (which he mostly uses to navigate his way down the stairs). His father (Ray McAnally, The Mission) assumes that Christy doesn't have much going on upstairs, often regarding the boy's desperate spasms and wild eyes with a heavy sigh. Christy's mother (a remarkable Brenda Fricker, Albert Nobbs) takes a more optimistic and nurturing view of her son, but still struggles to understand him. Finally, Christy makes a breakthrough: grabbing a piece of chalk between his toes, he scratches out the word “mother.” “My son's a genius!” the father cries happily, more correct than he realizes.
As time passes and Christy enters adulthood, he blossoms into a gifted artist. His paintings initially look more or less like you'd expect paintings produced by someone's left foot to look, but he over time he develops an elegant, distinctive style. Alas, hope is a double-edged sword: as Christy's communication abilities improve and his life begins to approach something resembling normality, he starts harboring dreams of bigger and better things. He wants romance, a family, a home of his own – a real life. When it becomes brutally, painfully clear that these things won't be easily attained, Christy unleashes his anger on both himself and those around him.
Daniel Day-Lewis' performance is an extraordinarily committed piece of acting which still ranks among the finest work of his career. He flings himself into the role with almost alarming abandon (he broke two ribs during the making of the film), fully capturing the overwhelming physical struggle of every action Christy undertakes. It's a big, aggressive performance in a lot of ways, but you never catch Day-Lewis needlessly showboating. He works hard to ensure that we see the character rather than the actor, and to ensure that we see the human being rather than his disability. It's hard to forget Day-Lewis' burning, passionate eyes, conveying a level of intense feeling that Christy's friends and family simply aren't equipped to deal with. Every aspect of his life requires enormous effort, and he has little patience for able-bodied people who act without focus or purpose. “F--- all love that isn't 100% commitment!” he barks. It's a phrase he shouts in the midst of an ugly, drunken public breakdown, but it cuts through the half-hearted aimlessness of "normal" life like a jagged blade.
For my money, My Left Foot is the film by which all other “triumph against the odds” biopics should be measured, because it boasts a level of sincere honesty which puts most other flicks in that category to shame. Neither an exercise in grueling miserablism nor a wallow in blandly inspirational sentiment, the film simply does its level best to be truthful. It contains moments of darkness, moments of humor and moments of sadness, but none of these feel as if they've been exaggerated for dramatic effect. The film won a pair of Academy Awards and was nominated for three others, but it's disheartening to see that so many other films of this sort refuse to follow My Left Foot's example (the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, for instance, which substitutes treacly convention for clear-eyed frankness). It respects Christy Brown by refusing to sand the edges off of his life, and the end result is a profoundly moving work of art. I know that the film sounds like a chore, because movies like this often are. Believe me, I get it. Give it a chance, though, and odds are you'll find yourself gripped by Daniel Day-Lewis' striking performance and surprised by the film's willingness to examine its subject with such humanizing insight.
My Left Foot
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 1989