My Left Foot: Movie Review

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor of his generation.  His ability to fully immerse himself in whatever role he is playing is legendary.  When watching one of his films I don’t see Day-Lewis, I see his character.  The sheer intensity of his portrayals is gripping and spellbinding—and without a doubt unmatched by any other actor today. I suspect Leonardo DiCaprio learned many things when he worked with Day-Lewis on The Gangs of New York (2002), but I think the most important was the idea that you should only do quality work.  DiCaprio took a page out of Day-Lewis’ book and stopped making one inane film after another and concentrated on picking films for which he could be proud.  Day-Lewis has made less than 25 feature films in his career (most highly regarded), which only goes to prove that quality is always more important than quantity.

I have a difficult time deciding which of his two Academy Award wins for Best Actor (he has been nominated four times) is the best.  His menacing portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007) is powerfully mesmerizing, and his turn as Irish artist and writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989) is inspiring.  Of the two, Christy Brown is the embodiment of a controlled performance. Not just any actor could have played a character born with cerebral palsy and who was unable to speak clearly throughout most of the film, but Day-Lewis does it beautifully. While Day-Lewis could never master using his left foot as Brown did to write and paint (Day-Lewis used his right foot instead and the scenes were shot through a mirror), he nailed the body rigidness and facial expressions. Although the performance is completely controlled, it also appears natural and believable.

Of course, Day-Lewis (and the film) greatly benefitted from working with two accomplished actresses. Brenda Fricker won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Christy’s devoted mother, Bridget Brown.  The real Mrs. Brown gave birth 21 times, so she was an often harried woman, but she did as much for Christy as possible.  Fricker does a nice job of showcasing Mrs. Brown’s resilient nature and her unabashed love for her special son. She and Day-Lewis really do a sensational job of exposing just how deep and abiding their two characters love and respect one another.

Oddly enough, Fiona Shaw is often overlooked in My Left Foot, which is a shame because this is one of her better film roles (she is primarily known for her stage work).  She doesn’t have as much screen time as one might like, but she makes her character, Dr. Eileen Cole, memorable in her few scenes.  Dr. Cole plays a much more significant role in the book than the film, but I think that screenwriter and director Jim Sheridan wanted to focus more on the mother-son relationship than the patient-doctor one. Still, Shaw does get to shine in her brief appearances; one of which is in the memorable restaurant tantrum scene.

Besides the overall fine acting, the film itself is inspirational.  To watch a young boy (played beautifully by Hugh O’Connor) struggle with an almost paralyzing disease struggle to matter in the world is life-affirming.  Here we have a boy who everyone thinks is mentally handicapped but who is really a brilliant individual—his determination to persevere and berecognized by both his family and society is beyond admirable.  When he first writes “Mother” on the family floor and his entire family realizes he’s not “retarded” you get a little catch in your throat.  When you watch him descend into despair (and alcoholism) as a young man when he realizes that romantic love is beyond his reach (at least until the end of the film), you feel truly sorry for him.  And, seeing him learn how to control his impaired speech by reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be” is a testament to the human spirit. I think most people enjoy films about overcoming obstacles, and the fact that this is a true story only makes it even more compelling.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.


  • Twoshoes4u

    Perfect performance!  I watch it every couple of years.

  • Burt

    Two Oscar winning performances by Daniel and Brenda Fricker. Happy they won an excellent movie. 

  • ANH

    Day-Lewis’ role in “My Left Foot” is the standard by which I measure every other actor’s performance.  When I first had the pleasure of seeing it, he was unknown to me.  His performance was so terrific that I thought that he really was a severely handicapped actor, and that this film was his ‘biopic.’  Upon discovering who he actually was, he has since been my ‘all-time best male dramatic actor.’  He is so excellent in his craft that he almost deserves an Oscar every time out.   Another excellent Day-Lewis movie is “Last of the Mohicans.”

  • Michael Homan

    I watched this film years ago and thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a great job. The movie was a bit sad, yet inspirational showing that one can overcome their shortcomings or disabilities.

  • Jana

    I agree with the comment that Daniel Day-Lewis is without question the best actor of the generation.  If you watch “The Incredible Lightness of Being”  followed by “My Left Foot”  you will be convinced.  You would never suspect that the main charactor in both movies was played by the same actor.  He has an incredible ability to completely change the way he moves and looks beyond costuming and make-up.  It is sad that there aren’t enough quality films available to match his level of skill.

  • Gary Perl

    You have to see the entire Irish trilogy of the Daniel Day-Lewis/ James Sheridan collaboration that began with “My Left Foot”, continued with “In The Name Of The Father”, and ended with “The Boxer”. One of the great things about Day-Lewis is he never fails to intelligently entertain.

  • Helen B.

    I agree that Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor in the English-speaking world. He was equally great in “There Will Be Blood.”