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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Irish Film Marathon: Part 5

My Left Foot is a film released in 1989 and directed by Jim Sheridan, one of Ireland's most acclaimed director, with who I'm afraid to say I'm not very familiar with as this is the first of his films I've seen.
It tells the tale of Christy Brown, an Irish painter and author who has suffered from cerebral palsy from the moment he was born, thus making him entirely paralysed with the sole exception of his left foot, hence the title.
It was very well received by critics and audience alike and won several prestigious awards including the coveted Best Actor as well as the Best Supporting Actress.
But the majority of the praise focused on the amazing performance by Daniel day Lewis in the titular role. Most of the awards for Best Actor went to him that year. But even removing DDL from the picture, the film remains a great one and in my opinion fully deserving of all the praise.

Apart from Daniel Day Lewis's amazing performance, the most impressive aspect of the film was the way that Christy Brown's disability was presented. It was not in a pitying way, as Christy is not presented as an unfortunate character, he is presented as an entirely normal human being, the disability that affects his physical body is not transposed to his mind or his emotions. And yet he is not made out to be a glorious genius, he is not made out to be a cripple worthy of everyone's sympathy, just a flawed human being, a troubled artist with a strong character.

He has mood swings, is selfish at times, falls in love, gets drunk, gets into fights etc... All while being physically crippled.
Often such films are sentimental attempts to elicit sympathy from audiences by showing them those more unfortunate to themselves, while at the same time quietly saying, "you should consider yourself lucky you're not in the same state". I often find this attitude offensive and a real bore to watch.
However My Left Foot avoids all this, making a character that is as believable as he is human.

Jim Sheridan proves to be a most talented director, his title of Ireland's foremost director is well deserved in my opinion despite the small amount of films he directed. His directing style is rather minimalistic and mainly used to bring the characters and the exceptional story to the screen. It is a fascinating story, and deeply moving, and I think much of the praise for the handling of the subject should go to Jim Sheridan. He directs with a great amount of sensitivity and obvious admiration for the subject. One can tell he is genuinely fascinated by Christy Brown's story and he transmits this to the audience.

The film is constructed in a rather non linear way, a way that is familiar for those who have even a limited experience of biographical films. It begins with Christy Brown in his 30's attending a fund raising event to promote his new autobiographical book. His attendant is quickly charmed by him and proceeds to read the copy of the book he give her while they wait for his moment to appear.
Then through way of the book, we are shown Christy Brown's reminiscences about his childhood years, from his great love and dependence on his mother, his relationship with his father, his young years during which no one even considered that he may have a brilliant mind trapped in his crippled body, his years as a developing artist, filled with the depression and creativity that often come hand in hand to such artistic temperaments. His hopes for a normal life, with normal relationships, which he eventually comes to term with and accepts his fate.
And his eventual love for the very same person who is ready the book throughout the film, his attendant for that event, named Mary. They marry soon after, so in a way all this was a lead up to one of the happiest events in Christy's life, it was his future wife discovering who he really was by means of his book, a very personal affair that we (the audience) get to experience as well.

I've avoided focusing on DDL's performance to much up until now, but I can hardly go much further without writing about it. There really isn't much to say, if ever a performance was worth of the Best Actor Award, it was Daniel Day Lewis's performance in My Left Foot. He was extraordinary, and your level of appreciation will only rise when you read of the incredible length's he went in order to give such an impressive performance. He refused to get out of character during the whole shoot apparently, staying in his wheelchair the whole time and eventually suffering damage to his ribs due to the sitting position he'd been in for so long.
Of course one may argue that such method acting performances generally get more acclaim and publicity because of the crazy methods employed by the actors to get into character, however nothing I'd read had prepared me for the greatness of Daniel Day Lewis's performance. It is almost quite terrifying how Day Lewis completely transforms into the character, bearing little to no resemblance to Bill The Butcher or Daniel Plainview, some of his more popular roles.

Daniel Day Lewis elevated this film and made it into an unforgettable film, his performance is the main selling aspect, but in my opinion not the only great thing about the film, for it is also directed in a marvellous fashion, most of the film takes place in and around the Brown's house. But it never becomes claustrophobic or repetitive, as much the real landscape of the film is on Christy's face, we see his triumphs, joys, sorrows and bitter disappointments.
This is captured brilliantly by Sheridan, it isn't prying and has no intrusive feel to it. Perhaps the portrayal of Irish family life is slightly romanticised, in fact it isn't exactly romanticised but perhaps rather simplistic, it touches upon several aspects of life at the time, such as the excessive number of children, the scandal of pregnancy of before marriage, poverty and lack of food, lack of understanding towards Christy's condition and the lack of proper care for him.
All this was only lightly touched upon, but I can understand why, as this wasn't a realistic look at life Ireland at the time, it is a film about Christy Brown, it would have been a bit to depressing I think if the film had spent more time on these subjects.

One aspect I particularly admired was the fact that the makers of the film chose to show Christy Brown is a more realistic light rather than a sympathetic light, they did not change their portrayal of him just because he was disabled. I've mentioned this before, but in this case I would like to draw attention to how they portrayed Christy as an artist. Especially in the scene towards the end in which a segment of his book in read out.
The descriptions Christy gives of creativity is very thought provoking, he describes it as a black cloud descending on him, this is very obvious throughout the film, as he is depicted very much as a tortured artists type of character, and not just due to his physical problems, but because of his trouble coming to terms with his creativity and the fact that so many people had high expectations of him.

And last, but not least, a mention must go to Brenda Fricker for her Award winning performance as Christy's mother, perhaps the most important person in his life (as depicted in the film anyway). She is a rather simple character, defined by her unconditional love for her son. And yet she is a very developed character, more so than you might expect at first. She is the real backbone of the film and for a while is Christy's only link to the outside world, their relationship is very touching.

All in all, My Left Foot is a fantastic film that I am ashamed to have avoided until now. Daniel Day Lewis gives what may be his finest performance (it's hard to say though as he has done so much great work), Jim Sheridan proves to be a great director, the supporting cast is excellent and above all the subject matter is treated respectfully and sensitively without resorting to the melodrama that usually accompanies films dealing with disabilities.

Next up is the 2007 film Once!
To read the previous entry click here.

All comments are of course very welcome and will be answered.

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