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Film review: My Left Foot

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Irish writer/artist Christy Brown, as portrayed in the new film "My Left Foot," had a rather volatile personality, along with a dry wit. He probably wanted more than anything else to simply be accepted for who he was, but his frustrations at the limitations life placed on him were not well hidden.

Brown was a cerebral palsy victim with his left foot the only appendage over which he had complete control. With that foot he learned to paint, write, type and essentially communicate, though he eventually learned to speak clearly enough so that people could understand him.

The film stars Daniel Day Lewis playing the part of Christy as a teenager and adult, a role that has to be one of the most demanding in the history of cinema.

Day Lewis first came to prominence internationally with "My Beautiful Laundrette," in which he played a gay punk, and "A Room With a View," as an effete snob — two roles that couldn't have been more different. Day Lewis literally sank into those characters and was unrecognizable. In fact, it wasn't until "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" that audiences saw Day Lewis in a role where he was not buried by makeup, accents and twisted body language.

Not since Hoffman, DeNiro, or much earlier, Lon Chaney Sr., began their careers has there been an actor more enigmatic or surprising in his acting achievements than Day Lewis, and with the role of Christy Brown he again climbs into a character so all-consuming that it's hard to imagine Brown is being played by an actor at all.

The film follows Christy's life from his birth into a poor, crusty bricklayer's family in Dublin through a fortuitous meeting with a young nurse when he was about 40.

The early part of the film shows Christy as a young boy, played by Hugh O'Conor, who is every bit as astonishing in his full-bodied portrayal of Christy as is Day Lewis.

Right after his birth, Christy is so difficult to raise that others encourage the family to put him in some kind of home, but his loving mother (Brenda Fricker) and even his tough-minded, chauvinist father (the late Ray McAnally) insist that he stay with the family.

At first, as is often the case with handicapped children, Christy is perceived as brain-damaged. But, of course, he is really simply unable to communicate his thoughts and feelings.

Eventually, he learns to write with his left foot and crudely composes the word "mother" with chalk on the floor. It's an astonishingly emotional scene. And yet, first-time director Jim Sheridan manages to keep the inherent sentiment of the story to a minimum. (Sheridan should also get credit, of course, for pulling the performances from Day Lewis and O'Conor — as well as the rest of his incredible cast.)

Christy grows up, falls in love and is rebuffed — more than once — and sinks into alcoholism as he vents his frustrations in paintings that are at once evocative and painful, full of dark secrets.

Through his art and later through his published autobiography, Christy gains prominence — but not necessarily acceptance. And he feels that pain, despite his frequently displaying a wicked sense of humor.

In fact, some of his pain is so vivid that a couple of scenes here are hard to take, as when he must confront a shattering truth in a restaurant. If your heart doesn't go out to him in this scene, you're made of stone.

But do not misunderstand. This is not a relentlessly downbeat film about disappointment. Christy Brown had many triumphs, and the film's emphasis is on his ability to transcend his disability and live a full life, from playing soccer with his brothers as a teenager to falling in love and eventually marrying.

"My Left Foot" is remarkable filmmaking by Sheridan and stupendous acting by Day Lewis. Both are nominated for Oscars — and both deserve them immensely, as does Brenda Fricker, nominated for the role of Christy's mother. Too bad they couldn't find room for young O'Conor, who is every bit as deserving, or McAnally, who makes us feel for a character who could have been completely unsympathetic.

The film is rated R for profanity. There is also some violence and a quick shot of a nude photo.

-JIM SHERIDAN, in a telephone interview from his office in Dublin, Ireland, the day before the Oscar nominations were announced, said he had high hopes that Daniel Day Lewis would be nominated as best actor for "My Left Foot." But he wasn't even considering a nomination for himself as best director.

The next day it was announced that Day Lewis was nominated as best actor, which was no surprise. But the film also had four other nominations — Brenda Fricker as best supporting actress, the film as best picture, and yes, Jim Sheridan as best director. Sheridan was also nominated for co-writing the screenplay.

It was one of those rare moments when the Oscars recognize a worthy movie despite its lacking a major star, a major studio and a major theatrical release.

There's a perception that not enough voting Academy members will see a movie like "My Left Foot" to nominate it — but apparently there were a lot of people who not only saw it, but recognized its worthiness as an important award-worthy production.

But during this interview the day before all the hoopla, Sheridan, a veteran playwright and stage director, was modest and cool as he discussed his first cinematic venture.

He said he knew Christy Brown personally and had been anxious to see his story become a film for some years. "Noel (Pearson, producer of the film) was the agent to Christy Brown for 10 years and I had met Christy and known him.

"Noel and meself were running a little theater in New York and he got a show on Broadway, but it lasted only one night. So we got together and thought we should do a film (about Christy Brown). This was about 1986 and Noel asked me to write it.

"I suppose it was ideal because I knew Christy and knew Dublin and had been interested for five or so years. And I always knew film was the medium I wanted to work in. Theater is more difficult because of the abstract nature of it. I knew I could direct it (the film), but we looked at a few potential directors anyway. But I knew I could do it and became obsessed with it."

It was the casting of the lead actor, however, that firmed up the deal.

"We knew when we got Daniel Day Lewis that we had a better chance to get the backing. We sent it to him, or maybe we rang his agent. But he read it, he loved it. He rang us back within a week."

Day Lewis is an obsessive actor who immersed himself in the role of Christy Brown with remarkable abandon, Sheridan said. "He went to cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin where he worked with disabled people for three months. He painted all the pictures in the film with his foot.

"He used to have someone feed him at lunch time, and I think there was a good reason for that. He didn't want to break out of character and make it into a circus act."

Given the nature of the material, how did Sheridan avoid sentimentality in telling the story? "That's a hard question. We picked some stuff out, like he drinks a bit, so there are undercurrents.

"The one thing cerebral palsy people will tell you is that at birth the umbilical cord catches around the neck, so you're actually dying, you're killing yourself — in the attempt to live, one is killing oneself.

"I think there are dark strands that never come to the surface."

How did Christy Brown's surviving family react to the film? "Christy's mother died, but his brothers are in the film as extras in the bar scenes.

"They loved it. They felt (Ray McAnally as their father) was very good. They liked the father."

And what about that amazing performance by young Hugh O'Conor as Christy during his youth? "He's really intelligent, and he has great eyes, a great brain — he's a born actor. But I think he wants to be a lawyer."

The movie's one conspicuously absent fact, however, is that Christy Brown passed away eight years before the movie was made. But Sheridan said that was a justifiable omission.

"Christy died in 1981, but he'd overcome so much that we didn't want to put that he died in the end because the biggest thing in his life was getting married, and we wanted to end on his biggest victory, an emotional victory rather than the natural emotion of saying that he died at 49."