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'Rory': Ratched Excess

Film's Disabled Characters Can't Overcome the Platitudes

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page C05

Watching the Irish import "Rory O'Shea Was Here," it's hard not to think of an Oscar-winning flick from three decades ago that shares its fight-the-power sensibility: There's the same constrictive, institutional atmosphere, peopled by folks who presumably can't make it on the outside and presided over by familiar nurse types with control issues. When that setting is shaken up by the entrance of a foulmouthed firebrand, it recalls another impish malcontent: Jack. Nicholson. Cue the swelling music as McMurphy -- rather, Rory -- teaches everyone how to Live Life More Fully.

Too bad "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" did it bigger, and better, and without beating the viewer over the head with Meaningful Moments calibrated to open the tear ducts. Good entertainment of any stripe takes the specific -- e.g., the mostly one-locale setting of "Cuckoo" -- and, in the telling, transforms the minute into the monumental. But "Rory," for all its noble intentions and vigorous performances, never transcends the claustrophobic character study.

Romola Garai and Steven Robertson in the too-preachy "Rory O'Shea Was Here." (Focus Features)

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Part of the problem is that its filmmakers (director Damien O'Donnell and writer Jeffrey Caine) labor too hard to show us that men in wheelchairs have feelings, not to mention libidos, and resort to all sorts of cinematic cliches to make sure that we get it: See Rory (James McAvoy) win over the neighborhood kids by racing them in his chair. (Guess who wins?) See Michael (Steven Robertson) crush hard on a pretty blonde he watches in soft-focus from across a crowded club. Watch Rory and Michael triumph over prejudice!

It doesn't require telepathic ability to forecast the future of Rory, who has the degenerative disease muscular dystrophy, and Mike, who has cerebral palsy and whose high-powered father can't be bothered with caring for him. It's clear, for example, from the opening scene, when Rory zooms into Dublin's Carrigmore Home for the Disabled, announcing that his only movable parts are his mouth and two fingers -- "proficient for propulsion and self-abuse" -- that his task is to transform Michael's tiny little world. Michael's speech is so garbled that no one, not even the nurses who wash his every nook and cranny, can understand him. But Rory, quite magically, does. Apart from his potty mouth, how do we know he's a troublemaker? Rory spikes his hair and blasts Slipknot in the wee hours, much to the consternation of the head nurse, Eileen, played with starch by the Oscar-winning Brenda Fricker. Soon Michael is spiking his hair, too.

At Rory's urging, Michael applies for an independent living license that will enable the two of them to snare a two-bedroom flat on the outside. (Rory's rebellious ways foil his attempts to get a license, but he escapes the institution by signing on as Michael's interpreter.) Together they discover the joys of unencumbered bachelorhood. "No interfering old bitches," Rory crows, "it's just you and me in cripple heaven."

Until, of course, someone comes between them.

With recent flicks, including the Oscar-nominated "The Sea Inside," filled with characters who find the disabled life untenable, it's a refreshing change of pace to see characters determined to live an ordinary -- or extraordinary -- life. "Rory" works best when it depicts, without resorting to pity, the quotidian details of living with disabilities: The humiliation of relying on others to bathe you and put you to bed. The frustrations caused by the condescension of those who assume that your disability extends to your brain. Falling in love and fearing that physical limitations will lead to a broken heart.

But there's no need to resort to preaching to let us see those moments. We like it better, much better, when the filmmakers quit with the platitudes long enough to show, rather than tell, us how we've all got to leap over the limitations that the Nurse Ratcheds out there put in our way.

Rory O'Shea Was Here (104 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity and sexual innuendo.

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