“I saw it as more than a rather grim story of a man in a wheelchair. Christy represented for me a real kind of heroism, and I really wanted to try to capture the rage and frustration that led him to paint and write. To show, I suppose, that the trap is not the wheelchair or the afflictions, but our attitude to disabled people.”
Daniel Day-Lewis On His Role In My Left Foot,
To Arena Magazine, Summer-Autumn 1989
Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot shows bleak real-life events, but the film itself is not depressing. This is partly due to the non-linear storytelling, which softens the more difficult aspects of the narrative. However, the larger share of credit goes to Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker for their powerhouse performances as Irish writer/painter Christy Brown and his mother.
However, it is also true that Sheridan simply did not focus on certain aspects of Christy’s life. I will comment on those in a separate section.
The openings scenes show the adult Christy at a charity benefit. He is introduced to his nurse, Mary Carr, and hands her a copy of his autobiography, My Left Foot. She begins to read, which triggers a series of flashbacks.
Christy is born in 1932 and is diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy. Doctors recommend putting him into a hospital, but the Browns insist on keeping him at home. (A very effective Hugh O’Conor plays Christy when young.)
Mrs. Brown refuses to believe Christy cannot learn. She takes him with her everywhere in a wooden cart (the Browns cannot afford a wheelchair) and talks to him constantly. Mr. Brown is ashamed to have a handicapped child and avoids contact with Christy.
One day Christy astounds them all when he grabs a piece of chalk by his left foot, the only part of his body that he can manage to control. He writes “MOTHER” on the floor tiles. Even Mr. Brown is impressed.
From there, Christy progresses to painting. His brothers include him in their activities, even soccer. Christy meets Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw), who encourages him to come to her school for cerebral palsy patients.
Dr. Cole supports his painting and even helps him to get an exhibition. Unfortunately, Christy mistakes her interest for love. He has trouble dealing with Dr. Cole’s engagement and considers suicide. Soon after, Mr. Brown dies of a stroke. Christy begins writing his autobiography.
What Is Not In The Film
After My Left Foot was published in 1954, Christy began corresponding with a married American named Beth Moore. He visited Moore at her Connecticut home in 1960; in 1965, they began an affair. Christy’s second novel, Down All The Days, was published in 1970 and bears the following dedication:
For Beth, who with such gentle ferocity,
Finally whipped me into finishing this book.
Christy ended the relationship when he began seeing Mary Carr, whom he appears to have met at a party. I could not able to find any evidence that she was his nurse. They married in 1972, as the film says. By most accounts, Christy’s health deteriorated after the marriage. He died in 1981 at age forty-nine, the result of choking at dinner.
Something To Bear In Mind
Besides the two novels mentioned, Christy published three additional novels and three volumes of poetry. (The 1991 Collected Poems Of Christy Brown is a posthumous compilation of his three books of poetry.) That is in addition to his paintings. All this from a guy who could only type with one foot.
I’m going to close with a section from one of Christy’s poems that conveys frustration but not defeat. They strike me as being emblematic of him. The poem is called “Lines Of Leaving”.
“Your gentleness disarmed me
wine in my desert
peace across impassable seas
path of light in my jungle
Now uncatchable as the wind you go
beyond the wind
and there is nothing in my world
save the straw of salvation in the amber dream.
The absurdity of that vast improbable joy.
The absurdity of you gone.”
Theme: Art Overcomes Adversity
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