My Left Foot tells the inspirational true story of Christy Brown, a writer and artist born in Dublin in 1932. It was years before he could express himself, even by speech, because he was born with severe cerebral palsy. Director Jim Sheridan’s film, adapted from Brown’s first book, brilliantly tells the story in a series of flashbacks that vividly bring to life the tale of an artist’s rise to prominence against near impossible odds.
As we witness Brown’s early years, his disorder is harrowingly compared with the Catholic notion of Purgatory, with the young Brown empathising with the suffering souls that he hears about in Church. Sheridan cleverly conveys an inkling of the depths of frustration that those who can’t communicate with others must feel.
Brown’s uniquely Irish humour brings a sense of mirth to even the most awkward situations. “F**k Plato!” he barks at his speech therapist, after she has fulfilled her promise to help him enunciate his expletives more clearly. One of the most painful facts Brown has to face is that no woman will ever love him other than platonically. He also sees advantages in his loneliness, reflecting on the scope for creativity that his isolation brings.
The screenplay by Sheridan and Shane Connaughton highlights aspects of Brown’s life that fit the mould of a feel-good movie, and a cursory investigation of the truth reveals that liberties have been taken. Suffice to say if you want to keep the feel-good factor, don’t go digging into the history afterwards. The script remains a textbook example of how to turn a biography into something exhilarating and the intentions behind the tweaks were surely noble, with the writers’ arguably being vindicated as the film has since become a touchstone of hope for many with conditions similar to Brown’s.
No review of My Left Foot would be complete without waxing lyrical about the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis; it’s tough to find a more towering performance by an actor in all of film history, before or since. It’s a passionate and heartfelt example of an actor fully committed to his craft and though Day-Lewis reportedly put his colleagues through the mill by remaining in character throughout the shoot, even to the extent of needing to be fed at lunch breaks, the results speak volumes for the value of method acting. Hugh O’Conor also deserves kudos for his heartbreaking portrayal of the young Christy Brown. His performance isn’t diminished alongside Day-Lewis’s, no small feat for a fourteen year old.
Sheridan has crafted an explosively uplifting piece of cinema but the liberties taken with the truth of Brown’s life raise questions of how far it is right to go in pursuit of a good movie. Perhaps focusing on things in a positive light does more to honour Brown’s legacy but the opposite could equally be argued.