Who goes to the movies for moral uplift? You want moral uplift, go to the Ice Capades. So don’t think that seeing “My Left Foot” (at Horton Plaza) wins you some kind of spiritual merit badge. This one you see for the pure love of great movie making. Its tough-minded, unsentimental writing and ferociously brilliant acting--across the board and especially at the top--manage to give a pretty good idea of what Christy Brown, the Dublin-born writer, poet and painter, was all about.
As Brown began the autobiography he called “My Left Foot,” in honor of the only limb he could control enough to write with: “There were nine children before me and 12 after me. Of this total of 22, 13 lived.” None, however, quite like Christy. This son of an impoverished bricklayer was born with cerebral palsy and, in the fashion of the day in 1932, was called a “dunce” and a “poor half-wit” for the first nine years of his life. Out of his mother’s earshot.
Probably because co-writer and director Jim Sheridan, a Dubliner, is from a huge and poor family himself, the film sneers at heart-tugging exactly the way Christy would, and with very nearly his same blunt Anglo-Saxonisms. Neither poverty nor Christy’s condition is the subject here; they are the givens.
Instead, 13-year-old Hugh O’Conor, who plays young Christy, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who picks up at Christy’s 17th birthday, meld to create an extraordinary portrait of a wild, difficult, far-ranging mind, a man unsparing of himself and of others, full of rage and despair, for years full of untapped sexuality, who at last achieves some modicum of heart’s ease. It is a spellbinding journey.
In his first film, director Sheridan frames the story with a fund-raising ceremony outside Dublin on the estate of Lord Castlewell and (the splendid Cyril Cusack), at which 21-year-old Christy is being honored after publication of his autobiography.
The wheelchair-bound, black-bearded writer is put into a drawing room with a nurse to look after him, until his appearance. Drinking his whiskey from a straw-and-flask arrangement in his tuxedo jacket, Christy casts a satyr’s eye over this lively, open woman, Mary Carr (Ruth McCabe) and begins his assault, using his book as an opening wedge. And as she starts to read, raptly, and to see his paintings illustrating its pages, we move into his childhood.
O’Conor’s young Christy has the baleful look, the fierceness, the clamped-down mouth that Day-Lewis will have; it seems entirely likely that one could grow up into the other. But O’Conor’s performance is nearly all mime and sound, the boy is like a furious projectile. Speech will come later, painstakingly.
Sheridan (and co-writer Shane Connaughton) tips us off to what is boiling inside this wild-eyed boy two years before the family sees it. When the breakthrough finally comes, the scene is a real killer. As O’Conor lies, exhausted, after spelling his first word in chalk with his foot, the energy he’s used to do this seems to pour off him in waves. (The scene is framed as a visual reference to another later on, as father and son lie beside each other, close as these opposites will ever be.)
The older Christy will be reached through a crop-haired, luminous-eyed teacher, Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw). He is now Day-Lewis, a late teen-ager and young man, torn by his sexuality, his loneliness, the depths of what he needs to say. Speech therapy will help him say it; particularly some of his crisper Anglo-Saxonisms (the reason for the film’s R rating). This is a portrait of the hero as a socially almost-impossible young man: randy, uncontrollable, barely redeemed by the swiftness of his wit.
Day-Lewis seizes the role, and almost immediately gets us to look beyond the man in the chair to the soul inside. It’s a performance with a fantastic trajectory; he is sly, funny, as swift as he can be with these squash-shaped syllables, wicked, mordant and openly romantic. And wait until you seem him as goalie in a street scrimmage.
But he’s not all charm. Cross him or, as it happens, let him fall in love and be left, and his rages are horrible. This is the tyrannical side of Christy’s disablement, and the film makers don’t avert their eyes to its unpleasantness.
They also don’t avert their eyes to the realities of poor Irish life, but it’s treated as throwaway stuff, details too familiar to single out, like the single stunning fact of 22 children in one woman’s lifetime. There’s the meanness of this poverty; the children four in a bed upstairs, even when they are in their late teens and one in that bed is the uncontrollable Christy.
There’s also the enveloping warmth, always; an unspoken family-first unity, even when it means rallying around a bullying, empty shell of a father (the late Ray McAnally in a fine, last performance). And there’s the pure, boundless love that radiates from the magnificent Brenda Fricker as Christy’s mother.
She plays her like the rock she must have been, without a jot of martyrdom or a flicker of complaint and without an actressy moment. And in keeping with her self-effacing power, Sheridan keeps his ensemble up and together, so that even Day-Lewis’ incandescence never runs away with the film. It can’t have been easy, since this is one of film’s definitive performances, with a subtlety and physicality of almost eerie accomplishment.