Strengths, Weaknesses, and Juxtapositions: Developing Characterization in MY LEFT FOOT
4 May 2013
My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown is a harrowing biographical film about one man’s struggles and triumphs while living with cerebral palsy. The film is adapted from Christy Brown’s autobiography, and one strong theme running through the story is the affecting roles women play in Christy’s life. Two women in particular, Mrs. Brown (Brenda Fricker) and Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw), play major roles in Christy’s life, and both women command respective powers: Mrs. Brown in psychical strength and Eileen in educated intelligence and communication. Although physical strength, education, and skillful communication are all things Christy (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggles with, the film effectively juxtaposes these women and their strengths alongside Christy and his limitations to better explore his experience, as well as develop his character. Moreover, the film also explores moments in both women’s lives when these strengths fail them, and how impacting and formative those moments are for Christy.
My Left Foot is a flashback story that begins with an adult Christy Brown attending a charity event at which he is the guest of honor for his recent autobiographical novel which contains his life’s battle with cerebral palsy and his evolution as artist in spite of his physical handicap. As he sits, awaiting his entrance, Christy recalls his life, beginning on the day of his birth, when his father is told by a nurse Christy has been born with “complications.” From there, the film flashes to Christy at ten years old, at a time when he is almost entirely mute and immobile, watching his family around him and spending each moment with his attentive, loving mother. It is during these pre-adolescent years when Christy first realizes the only part of his body he can control movement in is his left foot; he even begins writing and painting with his left foot. The film continues to cut between Christy’s memories and the present charity event Christy attends. Christy is attracted to his nurse at the event, Mary (Ruth McCabe), and, although they bicker and jest with one another, a clear connection begins between the two. As she glances through his autobiography, the film flashes back again to Christy in late adolescence. At this point in his life Christy meets Dr. Eileen Cole, a cerebral palsy specialist, and begins working with her. Eileen helps Christy improve his speech, movement, and even opens doors for him as an artist. However, when she rejects Christy’s romantic advancements Christy begins drinking excessively. The film returns to the charity event, and just as Christy finally prepares to enter he boldly asks Mary out on date. Refusing to take no for an answer, the two meet after the event and pop a bottle of champagne in celebration of Christy’s success. The film closes with a still on the two and text revealing they were married soon after.
It stands to reason one of the biggest struggles when making a biographical film which captures the true-life story of a man with cerebral palsy is being able to do the man’s story any justice. The only way to do it is to be resourceful and creative. For example, Daniel Day-Lewis could not move his left foot the way Christy Brown could, so writer/director Jim Sheridan shot scenes through mirrors, which allowed Day-Lewis to use his right foot and the director to capture an accurate illusion. Yet, tricks for continuity aside, Christy Brown is a complicated character to translate to the screen; not only is he dynamic, but his is also like live dynamite, about to blow at any moment. Therefore, Sheridan needed to pay close attention to characterization, and how to evolve Christy Brown into a three-dimensional man he actually is. To do so, Brown uses an inventive variation on the same mirror trick. He juxtaposes other characters with Christy. In seeing characters side-by-side each one becomes more distinguished and distinct. However, and here is where the metaphoric mirror comes in, how the qualities from the two leading women in the film reflect onto Christy is what supports Christy Brown’s dynamic characterization in My Left Foot.
First, the character closest to Christy is his mother, Mrs. Brown. Unlike Christy, his mother is a physically strong character, robust, in fact, and the film, particularly in the beginning, displays her power clearly. For example, at the start of the film, Mrs. Brown is 9 months pregnant but still taking care of her large, ever-expanding family, which includes an immobile child with cerebral palsy, Christy. Even in this stage of pregnancy, she carries a ten-year-old Christy up their family’s narrow staircase to the second floor. The physical demands on her body are glaringly obvious in scenes like this, and, when juxtaposed with Christy’s psychical condition, his mother’s physical strength is unmistakable. Moreover, by highlighting how strong Mrs. Brown is, the film is also identifying how physically weak Christy is because of his cerebral palsy. From a physical standpoint, Mrs. Brown and Christy are polar opposites.
However, Mrs. Brown’s strength is compromised from time to time in the film, and it is in these moments when Christy finds his own psychical strength. Returning to the aforementioned example of Mrs. Brown carrying Christy up the stairs, after his mother safely rests Christy on an second-floor bed she heads back downstairs but falls, knocking herself unconscious. Christy uses what bodily strength he has to pull himself back to staircase, catapult himself down the stairs, and bang on the door at the base of the staircase with his foot until a neighbor hears the noise and gets help for. Evidently, although Mrs. Brown is clearly strong in form, she does have moments of weakness. Conversely, although Christy is weak in form, he has moments of strength, and those moments typically come about when another’s strength is compromised and Christy must rise to an occasion. Juxtaposing Mrs. Brown and Christy offers viewers a look into his limitations, but also a look at him overcome limitations as his character develops.
Another female character close to Christy is Dr. Eileen Cole, the cerebral palsy specialist who Christy agrees to work with. Eileen is sharp and articulate. When Christy first meets Eileen, he is none of these things. In fact, shortly after their first session, one that was not successful for Christy, he tries telling Eileen to “Fuck off”; however, his speech is slurred, unpracticed, and inarticulate. Eileen decodes what he says and humorously replies, “With speech therapy I can teach you how to say “Fuck off” much clearer.” Like Christy and Mrs. Brown, Eileen and Christy are another set of polar opposites; Eileen’s strengths highlight Christy’s weaknesses, which communicates a stronger sense of Christy’s struggle.
Yet, even Eileen is not always as sharp and well-spoken as she should be, and there are moments in the film when her communication is unclear and her keen awareness compromised. Eileen cannot see that Christy is developing feelings for her. When Christy tells Eileen he loves her, she tells his the same back, but misunderstands that his declaration is of romantic love while hers is platonic. When Christy tries, again, to communicate his feelings for Eileen, she seems to have a better sense of his true motives for this declaration, but still is not open with Christy about her feelings for another man, Peter. Eileen tries to downplay and even ignore Christy’s declaration. Yet, eventually, when Eileen tells Christy she will marry Peter, Christy realizes Eileen will never love him the same way he loves her, causing a heartbreaking argument between the two. Eileen’s strength is in her intelligence and articulate communication; however, these skills fail her at times, and these are the moments when Christy finds his own voice, fights back, and communicates his emotions and experiences. Like with his mother, Eileen juxtaposes with Christy to highlight his weaknesses against her strength, but also his gained strengths during her weaker moments.
In all, Jim Sheridan carefully translates Christy Brown’s autobiography into a cinematic experience that effectively conveys the triumphs and tribulations of Christy’s life. Through exploring Christy’s relationships with the two most formative women in his life, Sheridan captures Christy’s struggles, but also offers insight into moments of great strength, both learned from and in reaction to these women. The interconnectivity of characterization in My Left Foot helps Sheridan create dynamic characters, as well as do justice to a remarkable real-life story.