Christy Brown, Who Died at forty-nine in 1981 after choking on food, was a working-class Dubliner who relished family (he was the tenth of twenty-two children), pranks, girls, drinking, brawling, painting and writing. The last two brought him fame. Brown’s autobiography, on which this extraordinary movie is based, details all of his enthusiasms plus one hell of a disability: Brown was born with cerebral palsy. His damaged brain allowed him control only over the movement in his left foot Brown’s dexterous toes could type, maneuver a paintbrush, wriggle to music, kick a soccer ball and even hold a razor in a failed attempt at suicide.
It’s the kind of role that showoff stars leap at. Luckily for the film and us, an actor got there first. Daniel Day Lewis, the handsome doctor in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, does nothing to tidy up Brown’s illness for mainstream consumption. His head wobbles, his eyes roll, his mouth twitches and drools in a vein-swelling effort to produce even a few garbled words. At first we look away. Then the actor draws us in, making us sense the alert mind yearning for expression. Day Lewis gives a towering performance — fierce, witty and moving. He uncovers an imprisoned character’s beating heart.
First-time director Jim Sheridan, who co-wrote the script with Sean Connaughton, has rigorously avoided turning real-life misfortune into Hollywood treacle. Like Day Lewis’s acting, the film pulses with unbridled emotion and humor. Brown is nobody’s idea of a virtuous poster boy. In the film’s opening scene, Brown, then twenty-seven, sits in a wheelchair before the start of a charity gala in his honor. He flirts outrageously with Mary Carr (Ruth McCabe), the nurse he has just met and who has just discovered a liquor bottle tucked away in his pocket Brown and Carr will later marry, but Sheridan takes the film only to the time of their meeting, telling the story in flashback.
Brown’s bricklayer father, a violent boozer splendidly done by the late Ray McAnally, goes along when his wife (Brenda Fricker) insists on keeping their crippled boy at home with the other children. But he sees no intelligence in the gnarled creature, even when — at age seven — Christy tries to pick up a piece of chalk with his toes. Hugh O’Conor, superb as the young Christy, captures the heartbreak of a boy who can’t make the people he loves grasp that he understands them. Two years later, when Christy not only picks up the chalk but spells out the word mother, his dad carries him off to the pub, introducing him as “my son, the genius.”
Day Lewis takes over the role when Brown is seventeen. Pulled around in a cart by his brothers, using his head to stop a ball, he aches for acceptance, especially from the local girls for whom he writes poetry and draws pictures. Each rejection wounds him. Later, when Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw) provides him with speech therapy and arranges for an exhibit of his art, he disastrously mistakes her affection for passion.
Throughout his life, Brown refused to give in to public convention or his own despair; he wouldn’t play the victim. Brown labored to express all of his feelings, not just the acceptable ones. Day Lewis works the same way. My Left Foot, a keen match of actor and subject, stands as an eloquent tribute to the talents of both.