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.
In the Name of the Father's Gerry Conlon, who starts out seeing his father Giuseppe (Peter Postlethwaite) as nothing more than a sickly scold and a victim, perceives the heroism of the man's decency when they're thrown into the same prison cell. Giuseppe can appreciate even the chief prison guard's humanity; a cold-blooded IRA assassin tries to burn that guard alive. This brutal contrast grows into a full-blooded analysis of Irish machismo. Sheridan's major impetus to do this film was to create "a good Irish father" (the only one previous, he thought, was in James Joyce's Ulysses) and to set this nonviolent man down in the middle of a violent environment. But the story, he wrote in 2003, is from Pinocchio. "A young boy who is an inveterate liar leaves home to find himself. He gets in with bad company, steals and is caught by the police and sentenced to the belly of a whale. Then his father comes along to rescue him and he is swallowed whole, too. Together they light a fire in the belly of English society and in the end the son is coughed free. The only difference being that the father dies in the process." Sheridan's ability to grasp the universal emotion and thirst for adventure behind journalistic headlines gives In the Name of the Father the tang of bittersweet elation.
At the core of Some Mother's Son (1996) is the relationship between Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren), the schoolteacher mother of a college-age boy, and Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan), a working-class mother who despises the British. As their sons teeter toward political martyrdom in Maze Prison, the two women beg the British government to respond to the prisoners' demands and thus end the strike. Kathleen -- educated, worldly and anti-IRA -- is better able to articulate their sons' plight to British officials, but Annie has the scrappiness and fellow-feeling needed for mass protest and a war of emotional attrition. She has already lost one son to the struggle, and she's certain that blasting the British off her island will better her lot. As the turbulence behind bars runs its terrifying course, Kathleen gets caught up in the fervor of Annie's firebrand solidarity. Their alliance is a marvelous example of the surprising valences in human chemistry -- and the sorority of motherhood. But Kathleen never loses her quizzical intelligence and independence. The movie is about the need to preserve life without betraying comrades.
Fathers and mothers and neighbors and sons -- again, you can see the roots of Sheridan's understanding of these figures way back in My Left Foot. Christy Brown's father boasts a stern sense of patriarchy and a rebelliousness that can't be curbed outside the home. When a drunk asks him whether his begetting days are over because he's had a handicapped son -- whether he'll "tie a knot in it" -- Mr. Brown responds with a headbutt that knocks the damn fool down. The father doesn't come off as a villain even when he treats the young Christy as a moron. In his traditional role as husband and provider, responsible for feeding a family that keeps growing (his wife gave birth to 22 children, 13 of whom survived), Mr. Brown's brutal realism is understandable. And when Christy reveals his intelligence by taking a piece of chalk between his toes and scratching out letters on the floor, his father responds with as much pride as if the boy had become a footballer (which Christy does do, in his own way, later).
Christy's mother, on the other hand, is patiently indomitable, lugging the boy around even when she's huge with child. The young Christy is also indomitable, using his one good foot to propel himself when his mother collapses down the stairs, then to keep kicking the door while he screeches inarticulately for help.
Sheridan's on-the-spot creativity with his actors imbues simple moments with fierce poetry. As Christy spells out his first word, it turns out to be "Mother." When Hugh O'Conor, who plays Christy as a boy, pushes himself across the floor, the word "Mother" curves around his body and comes to epitomize the character's springy mental and emotional power. The effort that goes into that word's creation mirrors the mother and son's shared history.
And, as the older Christy, of course, there's Day-Lewis -- violently impassioned and exultant in My Left Foot, scarily unhinged throughout In the Name of the Father. Watching Day-Lewis' Gerry Conlon is as thrilling as seeing a tightrope walker pick his way between two skyscrapers, whether Gerry is gamboling like a counterculture peacock through London and Belfast, or succumbing to gibberish before his disapproving father, or, in despair, winding audiotape around his head. He's galvanizing as a pent-up -- and penned-up -- prodigal son, and Postlethwaite is astonishing as his anguished, abiding father. Thanks to these two actors, by the end, you can see some of Giuseppe's fiber enter his son's soul: exonerated, Gerry marches out of prison as if he knows in his bones what it is to be a free man -- emphasis on man.
The Boxer (1997), the tale of a former IRA soldier and Belfast boxer named Danny (Day-Lewis) who leaves terrorism to his old mates and reopens a nonsectarian boxing club, may be the most underrated of Sheridan's movies. Danny wants to accomplish his goal with his true love by his side: Maggie (Emily Watson), the daughter of an IRA leader (Brian Cox) and the girl he had to leave behind. But she's become a moral-political show wife for an imprisoned IRA soldier. Seen in the light of his entire career, The Boxer showcases Sheridan's talent for finding movie magic in the everyday: Danny is like the loner-hero in a Western. And The Boxer conclusively demonstrates, as My Left Foot only suggested, that Sheridan is one of the few contemporary filmmakers capable of telling a terrific adult love story. The movie's sexuality can't be separated from its spirituality; the heroine has a grip on her man not because of her high-quality pheromones but because she holds the key to his soul.
Sheridan's latest, In America (2003), is his crowning masterpiece -- so far. The erotic romance of My Left Foot and The Boxer evolves into one of the screen's most glowing depictions of domestic romance. Paddy Considine's Johnny has brought his wife (Samantha Morton) and two daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) to New York not only to jump-start his acting career but also to rekindle the great love they lost after the death of the family's only boy.
The hero of My Left Foot struggles to express the roiling feelings within him; Johnny has the opposite problem. He's a fine technician, but he must locate feelings that he fears may have evaporated. And he does so only after scraping bottom economically, artistically, and psychically. The movie has fabulous set pieces, such as Johnny's near-disastrous attempt to win an E.T. doll for his younger daughter at a carnival. But what makes the movie extraordinary is the way the action ceases to break up into scenes and becomes a series of epiphanies. Within a single brief stretch of celluloid, an African artist who lives downstairs and struggles against both mediocrity and AIDS tells Johnny he's in love "with anything that lives"; the older girl's school talent show rendition of "Desperado" turns the ballad into a heartbreaking anthem of yearning for the mental health of a loved one; Johnny stands in a line of actors rehearsing Shakespeare's "winter of our discontent" speech, then, in his cab job, endures a stockbroker doing a white rap; the African artist faints -- and the younger girl offers him magical lemon drops. (Maybe she got the idea from "Over the Rainbow": "Where troubles melt like lemon drops.") In America proves once again that Sheridan can make those rare movies that deserve to be called uplifting.
And why should anyone be surprised? With a DNA film like My Left Foot, he's got the best creative genes in the business.
Born: Feb. 6, 1949, Dublin, Ireland
Education: University College, Dublin; Abbey School of Acting
Family: wife Fran; daughters Kirsten and Naomi (co-writers with Sheridan of the screenplay for In America) and Tess.
Stage experience: Co-founder, Project Theatre, Dublin; director, Irish Arts Centre, New York
Production company: Hell's Kitchen, named for the New York neighborhood where the Sheridans moved in 1981
Other notable films: The Field (1990), writer-director; Into the West (1992), writer; Agnes Browne (1999), Borstal Boy (2000), On the Edge (2001), and Bloody Sunday (2002), producer.
What: A conversation with Jim Sheridan at the Maryland Film Festival. The Oscar-nominated writer-director will discuss his films and his career with Sun movie critic Michael Sragow and answer questions from the audience.
When: Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Brown Center, Maryland Institute College of Art, 1301 Mount Royal Ave.
Information: 410-752-8083; or online www.mdfilmfest.org / 2004