Monday, April 27, 2009

Left Field Cinema: My Left Foot (1989)

(Need I say that Mike Dawson's Left Field Cinema is now my favorite film podcast? Once again Dawson sends me off to find another film that I overlooked...)

Overlooked Gems: My Left Foot
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema

There is a point, about half way through this film where a pub of mourners sit and drink to a fallen family member. Amongst the crowd of faces is Christy Brown played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Christy has cerebral palsy and is not the finest singer in the world, but despite this he decides to sing a song for the memory of his loved one. A disrespectful patron of the pub makes the general statement: “will somebody shut him up” at which point all of those sat with Christy join in with the singing as a sign of unification against this one disparaging grunt. This is satisfying enough, but what makes this moment a classic confrontation in cinema is what follows: the irritable patron continues to make disparaging remarks about the Brown family, a fight looks sure to begin but Christy calms his brothers down and slowly rolls in his wheel chair so that he is sat opposite the patron who stands towering above him. The patron rather glibly states “I don’t fight cripples” and without a moment of hesitation, to the point where it’s hard to discern if the patron even managed to finish his sentence, Christy uses his left foot to violently kick the patron’s glass from his hand and in doing so instantly begins a full scale bar brawl. This scene surmises the character of Christy Brown in many ways, never afraid to speak his mind, never considering his disability a hindrance, but perhaps in many respects an advantage, and most importantly not taking any crap from anyone. The patron might not fight “cripples”, but this “cripple” is sure as hell going to fight you.

My Left Foot is a true story which follows real life Irish painter and poet Christy Brown and his family. Told in flashback, beginning with Christy arriving as the guest of honour at a fundraiser and then rewinding many years to Christy birth, troubled childhood, painful adolescence and difficult transition into an artist. It is a biography picture, one which catalogues a life full of meaningful trials and tribulations and strength in the face of adversity.

For those familiar with the film but who have never seen it, it is easy to marginalise this a mere performance piece, that if it were not the extraordinary work and acting ability of Day-Lewis then this film wouldn’t be remembered. A similar argument could be made for last years PT Anderson film There Will be Blood, but in both cases the assertion is incorrect. It is true, Day-Lewis’ performances in both films probably represent the highest aspirations of actors and performers across the globe (although his critics assert that his acting style is exaggerated and over the top – and they’re not without a case). The part of Christy Brown would be in many respects the most challenging of Day-Lewis’ career to date and the one which solidified his reputation as one of the worlds greatest actors. But if we look beyond this performance we find a cast of superb supporting characters, Brenda Fricker as Christy’s mother Mrs. Brown who brings an understated tenderness and truly maternal spirit to the role, always watching out for Christies best interests at the expense of her health and her wallet at times, or Ray McAnally as his father Mr. Brown, the petulant somewhat irresponsible drinker who stoically stands by his disabled son, when Christy is born a local drinker comments to Mr. Brown that “his breeding days are over now”, Mr. Brown responds by head butting the drinker, such violent outbursts although never witnessed by Christy are later repeated by him as he grows older, despite being one of many Brown sons, he is in many ways the one who resembles Mr. Brown the most. Mr. Brown loves his children but never allows himself to truly connect to any of them. Such a part would have been very easy to villianise, but My Left Foot is unwilling to take such easy routes towards its conflict. An excellent scene in the second act shows Mr. Brown organising Christy’s brothers to help build Christy a separate room to work on his art in, Mrs. Brown rather astutely points out to Christy that this action is the closest he’ll ever get to hearing his father tell him that he loves him. Mrs Brown contrasts this emotional distance by being unconditionally devoted to Christy, the only one who knows what he’s capable of, the only one who truly understands him both before and after his ability to speak improves through speech therapy. There is indeed a wider sense of familial love in My Left Foot which is rarely captured on film without resorting to mawkish sentimentality, the Browns are a typically large Catholic family, and Christy is one of thirteen survived children out of the twenty-two born altogether, a more clichéd depiction of this scenario would see Christy abandoned by his family as the burden becomes too great for them, but this never happens in My Left Foot, instead Christy faces the more realistic challenge of finding romantic love, which is ultimately what this film is all about.

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