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This movie won Oscars for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Supporting Actress (Brenda Fricker.)

'My Left Foot' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 1989

Jim Sheridan's "My Left Foot" must be the most passionately empathetic film about a physical affliction ever made. As Christy Brown, the Dublin-born painter-writer afflicted with cerebral palsy, Daniel Day-Lewis clenches his teeth so hard and blinks so ferociously that you'd think he was trying to force steam out of his ears. With his frail body straining against itself, his neck twisted and his hands stretched out to full length, he tortures each word out of himself, as if he were ripping them out of his flesh. And we feel that in watching him we're watching the essential struggle -- not just a man fighting against his disease, but the fight to communicate that everyone wages.

There's great violence in these scenes; it's a grim spectacle and not at all easy to watch. But Day-Lewis and the Irish playwright-director Sheridan plunge us into the hell of this wrecked body so deeply that we can't look away. This astounding young actor spares himself nothing. He takes the intensity of Christy's emotions to a point almost past belief, and way past the point where we expect most actors to stop. He confronts us with Christy's physical wretchedness, his anger and frustration and self-pity and sexual aggressiveness, and asks for not one shred of mercy, not one tear. The results are devastating and unforgettable. If a performance can leave scars, this one will.

The movie begins in 1959, but leaps back to 1932 with Christy's arrival into a family of 13 children. From the start, the assumption is that Christy (who as a young boy is played compellingly by Hugh O'Conor) is mentally as well as physically impaired, and for his early years, he's plopped on a blanket under the stairs where he can listen in on the family rabble. Unable to express himself, Christy wriggles on the floor, sending impassioned, silent pleadings with his eyes. One day, though, while his sister is struggling with a math problem, Christy grasps a shard of chalk between his toes and scribbles out the answer, only to be misunderstood and, once again, assumed to be an idiot.

The utter futility of this dark sequence is matched only by the elation of the scene in which he finally triumphs by painfully scratching out a single word -- MOTHER -- with chalk on the floor, and is carried into a pub on his father's shoulder, like a conquering hero. In the hands of another director, this might seem intolerably maudlin -- triumphal in a commonplace way. But Sheridan underplays the uplift. What he emphasizes in these scenes is the desperation in Christy's expression, and how his physical pain is dwarfed by his emotional anguish at being locked away inside himself.

Later, as he grows older and he begins working with an attractive young doctor (Fiona Shaw) to sharpen his ability to talk, we see these torments deepen into a soulful, adult suffering. These new disappointments are different from his earlier ones, and as his relationship with this doctor grows and he becomes more articulate, his mother (Brenda Fricker) begins to fear that his hopes of a normal life, with expectations of a normal love life and a family, will be raised only to be cruelly dashed.

When the crash finally arrives, Christy is overwhelmed and resolves to kill himself, and if there is an image in movies more devastating than the sight of him struggling to slash his wrists with a razor clenched between his toes, I haven't seen it. This crisis is the film's emotional center -- its point of no return. Unable to kill himself, Christy resolves to continue on, but in no way does he soften his fury. By this stage, Christy has had a critically celebrated show of the watercolors he paints with his toes. What's more, he's developed his own style of mordant, impudent wit. Behind it all, we sense his inner darkness. At its base, "My Left Foot" is a lesson in the function of rage. It shows us how Christy's struggles are translated into art and, in particular, into cleareyed, angry comedy.

As magnificently fierce as Day-Lewis is, the film is far from a one-man show. The movie Sheridan has built around him has a pitch-perfect dryness and simplicity; there's never a misstep or false note in the way that the director and Jack Conroy, his cinematographer, re-create this cramped, poverty-stricken Irish-Catholic existence.

The performances, too, are burly and robust, especially Fricker's characterization of Christy's stubbornly protective mother. Also, Ray McAnally's performance as his father has a boisterous, pub-crawling energy. And as Sheila, the nurse who meets him during one of his rare public appearances (and eventually becomes his wife), Alison Whelan has a working-class hardheadedness that allows her to meet Christy's gaze straight on, without flinching or falling into pity.

"My Left Foot" is gloriously exultant and hilariously unexpected, but I admit that when I had a chance to see it earlier this summer in England, I studiously avoided it despite the uniformly favorable reviews. All my resistance, though, was overwhelmed virtually in an instant. Sheridan and his great young star have universalized their broken hero. When Christy and Sheila sit together -- she reading the autobiography on which this film is based, and he sipping whiskey out of a straw -- we see the man, not the disability. Flirting shamelessly, Christy eventually asks his companion out, and though she has other plans, his passion is too great for her to resist. Twisted in his wheelchair, with his lapels splattered with renegade saliva, he seems the most unlikely of lovers. But there's a powerful wickedness in those hooded eyes. However bent his body may be, the spirit behind is in full flower, potent, ready for anything.

My Left Foot is rated R

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