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'My Left Foot' : (R)

By Desson Howe
December 22, 1989

AT THE beginning of "My Left Foot," a man's foot pulls a record from its sleeve, lowers it tremulously onto a turntable and, after the foot's owner catches his breath, starts the music.

This excruciating maneuver, a mere instant in the troubled life of cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown, launches not only a protracted, vicarious struggle for the viewer, but also the beginning of an immensely affecting experience.

This Irish film, adapted from Brown's true-life account, and powered by a collectively true cast, has an existentially constricted beauty of its own that steps dexterously over cloying, civic-minded sympathy. It gets in close with Christy, and shows the dark, initially wordless storms inside his head.

But it also wheels that thematic grimness towards an increasing sense of glory, as Christy's free-moving foot shows his mother, his crowded Catholic family and the world that its owner is an artist with a normal desire for love -- the non-pitying, committed and physical kind.

The dual performance, by Hugh O'Conor (as the younger Christy) and Daniel Day-Lewis (as the older one), is, appropriately, the movie's most prominent force. The youthful determination in O'Conor's contorted face as he variously crouches under the family stairs, kicks the front door screaming for help and painfully scratches a significant word on the parlor floor (a piece of chalk wedged between his toes), is stirring and heart-stopping. When Day-Lewis seamlessly takes over at Christy's 17th birthday, the British performer of "My Beautiful Laundrette," "A Room With a View" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," leads the movie with his best screen work thus far.

Not only does Day-Lewis master the physical aspects of the role, the minute-to-minute struggle of almost complete paralysis, he lives the painful genesis of an artistic character, with pent-up rages that threaten to explode his skull, as well as happier bursts of twisted smirks and witty comments -- most of them unquotable here.

"Foot" also marks one of the late Ray McAnally's final performances. As Christy's father, he's a ruddy-faced, simple-hearted bricklayer who weathers poverty and the shameful prospect of a crippled and -- he assumes -- retarded son with tremendous believability. Brenda Fricker, as Christy's perservering mother, and Fiona Lewis, as the doctor who teaches Christy enunciation, "Hamlet" and other passions, also provide memorable support.

Debuting director Jim Sheridan (who co-adapted the book with playwright Shane Connaughton) places this empty-coalbin saga in a well-directed home that mixes the tragic with the funny. When young Christy is about to show what he can do with a piece of chalk, a young brother peers over the stairs and says, "Wot's oop?"

"Keep quiet," threatens his father, who doesn't want to destroy Christy's concentration. "All I said was 'Wot's oop,' " whimpers the little tyke

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