There aren’t many overcoming-the-odds stories quite like that of Christy Brown. Born with cerebral palsy in 1930s Dublin, his parents thought his handicap was mental as well as physical. Though eventually properly diagnosed, Brown, in a lower working-class family with nearly 20 children, had to push himself just to be appreciated by his family. Through the use of his only fully-functioning limb, his left leg, he taught himself to write and paint, both skills he developed expertly.
But what makes the film version of Brown’s autobiography “My Left Foot” such a great retelling is its humility. Both director/writer Jim Sheridan and star Daniel Day-Lewis have managed to tell this story in a way that doesn’t scream for attention and resort to melodrama. Cheesy struggles and scenes of frustration as well as glorious moments of minute victory are easy pitfalls of a story so miraculous, yet “My Left Foot” stays real and intrinsically inspired.
Day-Lewis is the easiest to highlight. Playing anyone with such serious physical impairments has to be a demanding task. Not only does Day-Lewis give us a very complete picture of Christy, but he also manages to chronicle the growth, improvement and inner change of the character in different stages of his life. He plays Christy at 17 when he had limited language capability and was emotionally volatile just as crisply as he does the intellectually learned Christy who struggles to cope with why he can’t find non-platonic love. The latter theme is the film’s strongest and it would’ve been nice for Sheridan and co-adapter Shane Connaughton to really flesh that out. Regardless, Day-Lewis gets us to understand and sympathize with all those elements, giving a performance that’s so believable you often don’t have time to think “wow, he’s such a great actor.” Those are the most commendable performances.
Equally important but through more subtle means is Sheridan’s work on the film. This story is about day-to-day life and struggles. Although Christy has such a unique set of circumstances hampering his life, his struggles are not unlike our own and Sheridan grasps that concept completely. Christy struggles with love, parental attention, questions of self- worth and capability. His struggles are just more physically manifested (literally and figuratively) than ours.
Sheridan gives us moments that capture the spirit of the large Brown family and Christy’s unique place in it. The drama evolves naturally when tensions are highest and the humor comes in much the same way. The dinner scene when Christy learns that his doctor/teacher — the woman he loves — is going to marry his brother Peter is the film’s finest example of both Day-Lewis and Sheridan’s efforts. It’s built up to so well by Sheridan that it comes out when we’re ready and Day-Lewis takes us from there with his stunning work.
The other strong component of the film is Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown. I did not know she’d won the Oscar, but there was something about her performances as Christy’s loving and wise mother that just screamed Oscar-worthy. Her love for Christy and constant fighting for him just seems so convincing and heartfelt and she earns a lot of sympathy given her situation.
The emotional punch of the film given the story is surprisingly minimal. Perhaps that was part of the sacrifice of trying to create a film that feels organically human. The two should be reconcilable, but I imagine it’s challenging to tell a story that feels true-to-life and one that provides enough dramatic moments to take our emotions on a roller coaster. The choice to downplay the latter was definitely the wise one for “My Left Foot.” Brown’s circumstances speak for themselves — they don’t need to be squeezed for weightier dramatic impact.