Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, like, so I am reviving two Irish-related movie reviews. First is Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, the movie that won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Oscar; second is Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a Cannes-winning beauty. Both originally published by The Herald, in 1989 and 2007.
My Left Foot
My Left Foot is one of the best films of the year, a beautiful story about the Irish writer Christy Brown, a man who was born with cerebral palsy that left him unable to control his limbs, save for his left foot.
Brown was born into a huge, poor Irish family in 1932. Because of his physical disability, which also left him unable to speak for years, he was considered (and regularly called) an “idiot” and a “moron.” Eventually he learned how to write and draw with his foot, whereupon he was able to communicate his intelligence, which turned out to be formidable. He wrote an autobiography, My Left Foot, and found fame. The film, written by Jim Sheridan and Shane Connaughton and directed by first-timer Sheridan, takes an episodic approach to Christy’s life, concentrating on his childhood and young adulthood. Each episode is like a different chapter, telling a lesson of hardship or triumph.
Lest this subject matter sound grueling or downbeat, be assured that there is a lot of triumph. Sheridan regularly creates vignettes in which Christy clears another hurdle, or gets the better of some thoughtless adversary. As a child, Christy is played by Hugh O’Conor, whose eyes blaze and whose mouth is twisted; a clenched and angry boy.
Yet even here Sheridan finds rich humor, as when Christy’s brothers must hide a girlie magazine in Christy’s wheelbarrow, which serves as a makeshift wheelchair. Discovering the magazine, Christy’s parents bring a Catholic representative to lecture the boy on sin: “You know you can never get out of hell.” An ironic thing to say to a wordless boy who cannot move his body.
Surely the high point of the movie comes when young Christy, still considered retarded, manages to clutch a piece of chalk between his toes and scrawl the word “Mother” on the floor, at which point his father hefts him onto his shoulders and totes Christy down to the pub, for a manly beer.
As an adult, Christy is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the increasingly amazing actor who starred in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Day-Lewis captures the ferocity of a busy-minded man who has a limited outlet of expression. In Christy’s unlucky swings at love, Day-Lewis is utterly unsentimental and even wicked (his most hurtful and unrequited love is for a voice teacher, played by Fiona Shaw, who teaches him to recite Hamlet). Day-Lewis and O’Conor are superb, and you would be hard-pressed to find more exemplary supporting performances than those of Brenda Fricker and the late Ray McAnally, who play Christy’s parents.
The ghost of the great American director John Ford hovers over the film. Ford, an Irish soul, would have approved of this movie’s gruff emotionalism, particularly a pub brawl straight out of The Quiet Man. Christy starts the fight. He also wins it, as the film demonstrates again and again.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
It’s rare that a movie is as tough-minded as it is gorgeous to look at, but The Wind That Shakes the Barley is strong on both counts. This saga of the Anglo-Irish battles of the early 1920s deservedly won the top prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The title comes from a typically sad, fervent Irish song, but the movie itself is without sentimentality. That’s characteristic of the films of British director Ken Loach, who best work (Land and Freedom, My Name is Joe) deal with social concern and politics. The central character is an Irishman named Damien (Cillian Murphy), who intends to go to medical school in London until his abrupt radicalization. He witnesses the brutal, senseless beating of a friend at the hands of the occupying British army.
He joins a faction of the Irish Republican Army, locally led by his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney). Their guerilla campaign against the Brits is sketched in vivid strokes, especially a late-night prison escape and chilling retribution against an informer.
If the film were merely a good guys vs. bad guys tale, it would be simplistic. But Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty change the stakes halfway through. After the 1921 Anglo-Irish peace treaty, giving limited freedom to the natives in the south of Ireland, the former IRA brothers-in-arms turn against each other—some consider the compromise a sellout, others call it an acceptable peace.
The shape of the film somewhat resembles Warren Beatty’s Reds. It’s easy to romanticize the fight for freedom—but what do you do when you’re in charge? Those difficult issues are unsentimentally traced.
The film isn’t a political tract. The fact that the two brothers end up on opposite sides of the compromise means that the political issue is entirely personal.
Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93) use the dark skies and deep greens of the Irish landscape as a lush backdrop to the violence in the foreground. That’s as important as the plot, which comes to us without much exposition. We have to figure out the situation ourselves (it took me a good half-hour to realize that Damien and Teddy were brothers). The actors are fine, and Cillian Murphy (late of 28 Days Later and Red Eye) makes a soulful guide through the material. The thick Irish accents could use subtitles, but somehow I’m glad there weren’t any. There’s ample compensation in the uncanny faces, costumes, and locations.
Loach’s films are politically charged, and presumably he would like Wind to reflect contemporary crises. That may be, but thankfully he has left that to the audience to infer if we like. His film stays on course as wonderfully specific story about the mess of freedom—getting it and keeping it.
March 17, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.