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A Spirited 'Rory O'Shea'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page WE42

IT ISN'T every day that a couple of guys in wheelchairs get to do the driving in a movie. But in the crowd-pleasing "Rory O'Shea Was Here," two Irish lads take that premise and roll with it.

Rory (James McAvoy), a cheeky Dubliner with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, does get behind the wheel on one occasion. Drunk and boisterous, he demands to be arrested. And when a police officer offers to look the other way, Rory peppers him with choice verbal abuse. He refuses to accept pity, and his defiance becomes an inspiration to Michael (Steven Robertson), his newfound friend at Dublin's Carrigmore Home for the Disabled.

Michael (Steven Robertson, left) and Rory (James McAvoy) live independently with help from their nurse, Siobhan (Romola Garai) in "Rory O'Shea Was Here." (Focus Features)

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Michael, who has cerebral palsy, utters such tortured speech, few can understand him. But Rory, the latest arrival, whose only weapons are two working fingers and an abrasive mouth, picks up every word. He also makes no secret of his disrespect for dehumanizing authority, shocking the institution's otherwise unshakable supervisor, Eileen (Brenda Fricker).

Michael, a defeated soul with low self-esteem, realizes he has met a powerful ally who'll prod him into self-confidence. It's a dangerous gift. Michael will experience dramatic highs and lows instead of the benumbed, safe middle ground. He accepts the challenge, which means daring to live independently. And when he and Rory finally persuade local authorities to give them an apartment of their own, Michael dreams of even more. Her name is Siobhan (Romola Garai), a nurse paid to assist both men with their daily rituals. But her free and accepting manner suggests there might be something more.

Is Michael asking too much of life? What is Rory's underlying fury about? Can they truly expect happiness? Director Damien O'Donnell, who made the enjoyable "East Is East," and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, who wrote "GoldenEye," steer this movie away from the maudlin but not the realities of being incapacitated. There are cheesy things here and there, but they're kept to a relative minimum. We're always aware of the great abyss -- the despair and hopelessness that can be a part of this life. But thanks to the amusingly sour-mouthed Rory, sentimentality and gloom are treated with appropriate, if often unprintable, contempt. And his life-affirmative field trips, which include picking up women at the pub, going to a nightclub and taking that aforementioned joy ride, are further testament to his existential gumption. If there's such a thing as freedom for everyone, Rory's determined to give the prospect its most grueling road test.

RORY O'SHEA WAS HERE (R, 104 minutes) -- Contains obscenity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema.

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