Where director Jim Sheridan pushed off

'My Left Foot' began his uplifting films about extraordinary struggling families


May 02, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Jim Sheridan once told me that every filmmaker has his "DNA film" -- the one whose genetic coding he keeps wrestling with for the rest of his career. Sheridan's DNA film was his first.

Few moviemakers since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane have burst on the scene with as much excitement and authority as Sheridan did in 1989 with My Left Foot. Preparing to introduce and interview him Saturday night at the Maryland Film Festival, I reviewed all of Sheridan's films and was struck by two things: how eclectic his output has become and how so much of it has flowed from that debut. My Left Foot tells the tumultuous story of Irish author Christy Brown, who managed to write best-selling books despite cerebral palsy that left him with control only of his left foot (he used his little toe to type). Based on Brown's autobiography of the same name (he died in 1981), it's a robust, stirring, bracingly unsentimental account of a person overcoming disability. As Brown struggles for self-fulfillment, his senses are sharpened and his faculties made keener, more supple -- and more aggressive.

Like all of Sheridan's films, it's a zesty odyssey. Part of what makes the movie great is that it's never abstract or conventionally "inspirational"; it doesn't commit the error of separating Brown's affliction from the rest of his brawling, exuberant existence or of setting him up as a homogenized role model. Sheridan's method is to meld the concrete and the "mythic" -- that's how he keeps opening up vistas within vistas. "Films resemble senchai," he wrote in 1989, "Irish mythic tales with happy endings." Portrayed with lustiness and humor by Daniel Day-Lewis, Brown is a multidimensional hero -- a brooding Gaelic bard, a roustabout in a wheelchair. And this movie of his life isn't just about his fight with cerebral palsy. It's about living in close quarters in a working-class Dublin family; the liberation and trauma of first, second and third love; the loneliness of the long-distance artist; and the underrated, consoling power of wordplay and irony.

Sheridan lays exactly the right stress on every incident. By the time he brings his overriding theme into focus at the end -- the isolation any sensitive human being feels when communication breaks down, whether in a city crowd or a cramped tenement -- the articulation of that theme hits home with soul-warming satisfaction. And by structuring the film in flashbacks, and framing it with Brown's appearance at a cerebral palsy benefit and his first date with the nurse who will become his wife, Sheridan is able to end with a romantic flourish. Brown takes a rose between his toes and offers it to his newfound love. It's a beautiful summary emblem of his passion. The red rose fleetingly suggests Cyrano's white plume -- except that Brown woos his lady successfully.

Depicting the intimate life of an artist who is also a culture hero was the best possible preparation, it turns out, for Sheridan's career. Even at their most political, his movies never lose sight of the glorious intricacy of individuals and the complexity of their connections to communities. Ideas and emotions expand and fill out unexpected corners until every frame at every minute overflows with Henry James' "felt life."

Father and son

In the Name of the Father, Sheridan's 1993 film (written with Terry George), takes off from the "Guildford Four" case and the petty Belfast thief at the center of it, Gerry Conlon (Day-Lewis), who tries to get out of harm's way in England but is convicted for a terrorist act he didn't commit. Some Mother's Son, Terry George's 1996 film (written with Sheridan), dramatizes the 1981 hunger strike in Ulster's Maze Prison that resulted in the death of 10 young rebels. These films express ideological positions in piercing shards of action more potent than any rhetoric. The characters contain a welter of conflicting attitudes. Under the gun, people who must live on survival reflexes alone reforge their commitments to neighbors and family.

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