Calling Daniel Day-Lewis the greatest cinematic actor of all time certainly isn’t a stretch, and his performance in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot is the reason why. Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy. The only control Brown has over his body is his left foot. However, he uses this one appendage to achieve fame as both an artist and a writer. Throughout the film and in real life, Brown works through the adversity of his condition as well as the poverty of his large family. The movie is set mostly as a flashback; Christy’s life unfolds as his nurse, Mary Carr (Ruth McCabe), reads his autobiography while at a charity event with him.
The decision to set the movie as a flashback was a solid one as it shows the progress Christy makes in so many regards to arrive to the fame that lands him at the charity event. Also, the film does not focus much on the actual writing of the autobiography. Rather, the focus is more on his art. Thus, seeing his life through his own writing highlights his talent as a writer while also providing an appropriate backdrop for his story.
And his story is truly remarkable. Fame as an artist or writer is incredibly hard to come by for anyone. Therefore, Christy Brown, whose only means of expressing himself were through his left foot, is truly a remarkable case.
The film focuses also on his family life, which is interesting in its own right. As part of a large working-class Irish family, Christy couldn’t even afford the luxury of a wheelchair for most of his young life. It is the relationship he had with his parents, however, that is most intriguing. His mother loves him unconditionally throughout and it is always evident through the great performance of Brenda Fricker who won Best Supporting Actress for her role. Her pride is constant— and you realize that it doesn’t matter that Christie could paint and write, as his mother would still be proud of him regardless.
Christy’s father (Ray McAnally) is much harder to read throughout the film. At times, it seems that his large family and Christy’s condition is just too much of a burden for him to handle. However, his general overburdened attitude helps to make such moments as when Christy writes for the first time much more powerful. When Christy is first able to grasp chalk with his left foot, he writes the word “Mother” of the floor of their house. His siblings are in shock, his mother silently weeps out of pride, but his father’s reaction trumps them all as he parades Christy on his shoulder into the bar, proclaiming “This is Christy Brown, my son. Genius”.
You rarely get to see this kind of reaction from the father, making moments such as these that much more special. After Mr. Brown goes through great effort to build a room for Christy attached to their own house, Mrs. Brown appropriately tells Christy that “that’s the nearest he’ll ever come to saying I love you”.
Love for Christy comes in different forms from different people, which is another important theme. Beyond just his parents, there is Dr. Cole, who does love Christy, but does not share his romantic love. The realization that Dr. Cole is engaged leads Christy not only to make a scene at the restaurant after drinking far too much, but also to attempt suicide. In the end, Christy does find romantic love with his nurse Mary. However, the movie hardly shows their relationship and merely just tells the audience that they got married before the credits.
With the movie less than two hours as it is, it seems strange to exclude the love story between Christy and Mary almost completely. Given the focus given to his love for Dr. Cole, it would have served the movie better to show his successful relationship with Mary in more detail.
Despite that one questionable choice by director Jim Sheridan, the movie is well-made. More importantly to the success of the film, though, is the acting from Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. Day-Lewis’ performance is on the shortlist of the greatest performances of all time. Playing a character with a disability presents many difficulties, but has also led to some of the best acting we have ever seen. Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown is precursor to Javier Bardem’s Ramon Sampedro in Mar Adentro, Al Pacino’s Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, and Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump.
Day-Lewis’ famed method acting is on great display in this movie as he truly embodies Christy Brown. Even when the cameras were off, Day-Lewis remained in character. That kind of dedication to the character is why Day-Lewis is so great and why he was able to so accurately portray such a difficult character.
But for as much credit as Day-Lewis deserves, so too does Hugh O’Conor who plays a young Christy. His performance is great as well, but what is most impressive is the symmetry between the two actors. Not only do they look similar, but their expressions as Christy as nearly identical as are the tics that they display throughout the movie. To age a character with two different actors naturally is impressive, but to do it with a character like Christy Brown with such a serious disability is downright remarkable. The effort that Day-Lewis and O’Conor both went through to so accurately and similarly portray Christy Brown is what makes this movie so great. But beyond that, the effort that Christy Brown went through to transcend his severe cerebral palsy and become such a great artist and writer is what makes the story so great.