My Left Foot is told in flashback. There’s the present–kind of glorified bookends–when Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful adult and flirts with his nurse (Ruth McCabe)–and then the past, which recounts Brown growing up poor, with cerebral palsy, in 1940s Dublin. Hugh O’Conor plays Brown until he’s seventeen or eighteen, then Day-Lewis takes over. Since Day-Lewis has a beard and a distinct manner in the present-day stuff, when he’s a teenager and before he’d ever gotten any rehabilitation or treatment, it’s a very different role. O’Conor plays a very different role too in his maybe twenty minutes–he’s got to play younger Day-Lewis from the first scene when he’s not even a tween. And he’s got the big material to get through.
Dad Ray McAnally thinks Day-Lewis is catastrophically cognitively impaired. Mom Brenda Fricker doesn’t think so, but McAnally’s a loud (sometimes scary) drunk and there are the six other kids to think about. But it also means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Yes, there’s something about the expectation, both for the narrative and O’Conor’s performance–but also presents the characters from a particular angle, which tends to work a lot better for Fricker than McAnally. Because there’s also the unseen scary bits regarding McAnally. Fricker–rightly so–gets sainted. McAnally gets gray, only My Left Foot isn’t really set up for gray.
My Left Foot is very precise in its attention and its intention. The focus is on O’Conor and Fricker–then Day-Lewis and Fricker–in the family’s house. My Left Foot’s production values are never bad, but director Sheridan and production designer Austen Spriggs focus their efforts on the scenes at the family’s house. Sheridan’s not a flashy director, but when he’s out in public–basically these occasional pub scenes for McAnally–and photographer Jack Controy is no help–the precision is gone. To wildly varying degrees. The verisimilitude orbits Fricker. Because Day-Lewis (and O’Conor) are too busy doing these layered performances, not to mention the impossible physicality layer. They don’t need a grounding or anything, they just can’t be concerned with tempering the mood.
It’s actually something brought up later on–as someone reads Brown’s actual writing aloud–regarding the constant feeling of isolation, even in a large family. Day-Lewis and O’Conor are always isolated. Much to Fricker’s frustration. Day-Lewis, Fricker, and O’Conor all have big character arcs in the film. No one else has them. Even if their characters do change a lot–like McAnally or Fiona Shaw, as Day-Lewis’s first doctor and champion–they don’t get to do it on screen. Once they’ve changed too much, they just disappear. Same thing happens to Fricker in the third act; worse, sometimes she’ll be in a scene and wasted. Shane Connaughton’s script sacrifices a lot of character for efficiency. Sheridan enables it, yes, but the script is ruthless.
But I’m getting a little ahead.
Once Day-Lewis takes over, the film nicely ambles about. There’s a subplot about McAnally and Fricker being able to buy him a wheelchair and one of the sisters getting in trouble, but they’re very mild subplots. They provide some narrative structure. Otherwise, it’s these micro-vingettes, all of them doing–often heartbreaking–character development for Day-Lewis. Fricker gets her character development in big moments. Day-Lewis’s builds. The film avoids getting too in-depth with anything. Just like McAnally’s faults are left unexplored, as are all of Brown’s medical problems over the years. Or physical realities. Or, actually, mental ones. Day-Lewis has a couple big rejection from women scenes and the film skips the hard stuff. My Left Foot isn’t rosy, but Sheridan and Connaughton make a real effort not to get too real with any of it.
And, given–while in the present and now apparently a writer (Brown’s work as an artist and writer are very murky in the background)–Day-Lewis tells McCabe (who’s reading his first book, My Left Foot) about how it’s too sentimental. The film is too sentimental. The acting is never too sentimental. The production never looks too sentimental–Jack Conroy’s photography is too flat for the emotion. But Sheridan and Connaughton are going for sentimental. Elmer Bernstein’s score is often so saccharine–while being technically competent if not better–it distracts from the acting.
Of course, with a better ending–the micro-vingettes have been becoming summarized micro-vingettes skipping forward in the narrative without any rhythm–the film maybe could’ve gotten anyway with the sentimentality. Day-Lewis is charming as hell by the present day stuff. He’s just not in it enough in the present day to get too sentimental about. Everyone’s material take a dive in the third act; the film has run out of time to tell its story so there’s a rush to the finish. The transition from flashback to present is really, really, really rough. It races and interrupts the actors.
The film’s exceptional moments come in the first and second acts, when all the elements sync up–the acting, the writing, the history–and Sheridan is able to get these fantastic scenes. Because the writing gets so loose with the history later on, there’s less opportunity for that sync.
And no real attempt at it in the present day stuff. Day-Lewis and McCabe are just cute together. Both actors do quite well with the material, but Sheridan is going for cute. And gets to pull it off thanks to Day-Lewis.
Sheridan and Connaughton are able to get away with a lot because of Day-Lewis and Fricker. Fricker not getting to finish any of her subplots is downright mean of the film, given how much of it she enables.
Fricker, Day-Lewis, and O’Conor give great performances. Exceptional. Singular. Performances deserving that sort of adjective. McAnally is excellent. His part isn’t good enough but he’s excellent. Fiona Shaw is fine. She’s sympathetic but not too sympathetic. McCabe’s cute. All the brothers and sisters are perfectly fine; they’re interchangeable in the narrative, so there’s not opportunity for much more.
My Left Foot has its problems. It also has exceptional pluses. The pluses win out.
Directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the book by Christy Brown; director of photography, Jack Conroy; edited by J. Patrick Duffner; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Austen Spriggs; produced by Noel Pearson; released by Palace Pictures.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Hugh O’Conor (Young Christy Brown), Ruth McCabe (Mary), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Eanna MacLiam (Benny), and Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2ND DISABILITY IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.