It's tempting to describe My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown as a straightforward biopic, but while there would be some truth to that statement, it would also be misleading. The feature-film debut of writer-director Jim Sheridan, My Left Foot is one of those films that gave the Oscars its reputation for rewarding stunt acting in sentimental films that touch on disabling conditions (see also Rain Man and Shine). But watch My Left Foot and try to brand Daniel Day Lewis' performance a stunt. Try to convince yourself the story has been sentimentalized.
Christy Brown was born with brain damage that resulted in crippling cerebral palsy, but he overcame the torturous betrayal of his body and became a celebrated artist and writer. His brain dysfunction didn't affect his intellect (the screen Brown jokes that he thought of titling his memoir My Left Foot "Remembrances of a Mental Defective"), but rendered his left foot as his only steady appendage. He used it to paint, write, and type; Brown wrote six other books, including the semi-autobiographical novel Down All the Days. Sheridan's film covers the period from Brown's birth in 1932 to an emotional turning point in 1959 (Brown's 1981 choking death goes without mention).
Inspiration is inherent in Brown's story, but Sheridan, co-screenwriter Shane Connaughton, and Lewis refuse to sanctify him. Like James Joyce, this Dubliner is a problem drinker. He's also an ornery, mercurial womanizer, alternately egotistical and self-pitying, fighting what may well be a losing battle for self-control. And yet, as Sheridan's film illustrates, these behaviors represent the hard-won rights of a marginalized man who has to fight even to participate in society. Lewis' unimpeachable performance definitively eschews movie-star vanity and embraces the drool and sweat characteristic of a man fighting to rein in his writhing and rolling, and attempting clearly to be heard.
My Left Foot is also the portrait of a poor Irish family. Of 22 children, 13 lived to raise hell in the Brown household, overshadowed by Da (Ray McAnally) and overseen by Ma (Oscar-winning Brenda Fricker). Sheridan and Connaughton skillfully evoke familial love in all its strange, contradictory forms: reckless play and fierce protectiveness, unexpected outbursts of anger and joy, and the small compensations that keep them together. Ma's selfless mother represents an ideal, but one we suspect is miraculously true; Fricker's unwavering mother knows her lot and chooses to make the best of it, living proudly through her darling. Her self-doubting husband loves Christy, too, but with unfocused bluster that knows the up and down sides to paternal pride.
The extreme moments, like crises that rely on Christy's spastic aid and a poorly staged barroom brawl, can feel manipulative, taking as they do unnecessary support from Elmer Bernstein's score. Yet those scenes surely have their desired effect, especially in the unexpectedly touching tableau of father and son, eerily still. Sheridan best acquits himself in the most understated moments, like the passing details of Irish neighborhood life. A brief encounter with a Halloween rite in the streets memorably evokes the intersection of fear and joie de vivre in Christy's troubled young life.
Sheridan frames the story with the occasion of a gala for the publication of My Left Foot (hosted by Cyril Cusack's Lord Castlewelland). As Brown flirts with his nurse Mary (Ruth McCabe), she reads chapters of his life, dramatized in flashbacks. "It looks good," Mary says of the book. Christy replies, "Looks can be deceivin'," a demonstration of how one deft line of dialogue can go a long way. As the boy Christy, Hugh O'Conor touchingly establishes Brown's bodily imprisonment, a parody of his own humanity. Lewis reclaims the role when Christy turns 17, and Fiona Shaw rounds out the cast as his dangerously kind and lovely doctor, Eileen Cole.
It's as much a compliment as a criticism to note that My Left Foot leaves us hungry for more about Brown. My Left Foot's simplicity carries it into emotional territory, but the filmmakers have the lay of the land. Complimented by Lewis's masterful acting, Sheridan's work embraces life, a phenomenon we feel more vividly for the spirited story of Brown's extraordinary drive.
The Miramax Collector's Series edition of My Left Foot is as good as the film as appeared on DVD, but then again, the film has only ever been released in a shoddy full-screen transfer. Miramax's widescreen transfer begins with a shocking amount of dirt in the title sequence, but it appears to be a fault of the original element. After the titles finish, the picture improves, though significant dirt and scratches do crop up, and the grain is sometimes unduly noticeable. The cumulative effect is to make the film seem eight to ten years older than it is, suggesting that this 1989 film would already benefit from a restoration.
A handful of extras supplement the feature. The featurette "The Real Christy Brown" runs a scant 4 minutes and 40 seconds, but includes comments by co-writer Shane Connaughton, producer Neal Pearson, Hugh O'Conor (Young Christy Brown), and Stephen Bennett of United Cerebral Palsy. More importantly, the piece includes actual film footage of the Browns, circa 1962. We see and hear Mrs. Brown talk to a reporter, but the footage of Christy Brown is non-verbal (question: why not include the entirety of this 1962 news feature?).
"An Inspirational Journey: The Making of My Left Foot" is roughly twice as long (10:12), and adds comments by Irish film scholar Scott Ruston and film critic Charles Champlin to those of Connaughton, Pearson, and O'Conor. Despite good stories from the filmmakers, the absence of Sheridan, Fricker, and Lewis (except in archival awards' night glimpses) is glaring. Miramax includes a very nice "Photo Gallery" with about 40 production stills, as well as a "Reviews" text feature, with pieces by Champlin (for the Los Angeles Times), David Denby (New York Magazine), Pauline Kael (The New Yorker), and Elvis Mitchell (L.A. Weekly). [Champlin's piece is an enthusiastic feature, but not a review.]
The disc also includes Buena Vista's usual "Sneak Peeks," which play as the disc spins up (you can skip them and, if you wish, access them from the menu later). These include a Miramax 25th Anniversary spot and previews for Dear Frankie, Prozac Nation, and Bride & Prejudice. Since this is the best My Left Foot is likely to get for quite some time, this excellent film deserves to be purchased on DVD at last.
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