My Left Foot (1989)
Written by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Christy Brown was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1932. Shortly after his birth, doctors determined that Christy had severe cerebral palsy, which left his limbs spastic and constricted. Even his throat muscles were challenging to move, which limited his speech, causing people to see him as cognitively impaired. The one limb that Christy seemed to have control over was his left leg, so he taught himself to write and draw using this appendage. He never received formal schooling save a short stint at a clinic for the mentally and physically disabled. As a youth, Christy became a quite talented painter and writer.
There is a draw to tell stories of the disabled in a way that boils them down to inspirational posters, removing their agency and voice. The story of Christy Brown, though it should be noted some of the darker aspects are removed, is the story of a human being, warts and all. Christy is a stubborn person, quick to drink when he becomes agitated or feels wounded. He’s a womanizer, unable to determine whether it is carnal lust or human connection he seeks. Christy is not defined by his physical limitations and surpasses many “able-bodied” people around him in intellect, maturity, and soul.
While this was Jim Sheridan’s first feature, a director who would go on to give us numerous great films, the show belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, who embodies Christy Brown to the core. Lewis is famously known for his intense form of method acting where he takes on his role both on and off the set. What we see on-screen shows that this pays off as the character is brought fully to life. It’s clear that the actor has not just studied people with cerebral palsy but has explored who Christy was his mannerisms and quirks. There’s a certain way a smile spreads across Lewis’ face when he, like Christy, is sulking away, angry at the world, and a clever turn of phrase from a friend or family member brings him back. When Christy’s father berates his daughter over an unplanned pregnancy, threatening to strike and kill her, Lewis strains against his muscles, struggling to scream how he’ll kill his father if he tries.
Brenda Fricker, as Mrs. Brown, delivers a much more muted but equally powerful performance. While the culture around her looks down in embarrassment for her or suggests they send Christy away to an asylum, Mrs. Brown knows that there is still great potential and light in her son. Christy loves his mother profoundly, but I enjoyed that their relationship is full of conflict and strife. Both characters are strong-willed to the point of contention with each other but, when they can guide that passion, it pays off in dividends.
I remember reading a quote from Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he expressed disdain for the way disabled people are portrayed in popular media. He said that in most sitcoms, the disabled person is a saint and so virtuous they have their humanity removed. In Curb, Larry makes a concerted effort to show the disabled as just as neurotic, stubborn, and asshole-ish as the rest of the human race. Christy Brown was most certainly a difficult person to get along with, and I’m thankful the film didn’t try to sugarcoat him as some saint. He was a human like the rest of us.