`MY LEFT FOOT'' must be one of the year's least-promising movie titles, but the film behind it is surprisingly memorable. This is partly because of its subject, and partly because of a remarkable performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose foot - and yes, the rest of him - is as eloquent as anything a movie has shown us in quite a while. The hero of ``My left Foot'' is Christy Brown, a real-life writer and painter whose autobiography is the basis for the movie. In the film, as in his life, Mr. Brown is almost completely paralyzed, able to move only his left foot. But it's quite a foot, the way Brown has trained it - capable of typing, painting, and accomplishing many of life's daily tasks. The movie follows him from his birth in 1932, in Dublin, until he's in his late 20s and meets a young nurse who will later marry him. Along the way it shows his progress from an extraordinarily difficult childhood to adulthood, and to success as the very thing he wasn't supposed to be capable of becoming: a communicator and artist with an international reputation.
``My Left Foot'' is not always a pleasant film to watch. It shows Brown's disabilities in agonizing detail and, just as important, Brown himself turns out to have a far-from-perfect personality. But the imperfections of his all-too-human nature are exactly what makes the picture different from the common run of inspirational movies about people with handicaps, which often tend to idealize their disabled heroes.
BY contrast, Brown is often a nervy, irascible, and downright insufferable fellow. What's more, the film makes no excuses for him. It simply puts him on the screen for us to judge however we will - as a heroic man who triumphs over a disability, and as a volatile, often cranky character who could make life miserable for the people around him.
``My Left Foot'' is also generous in recognizing the sources of Brown's accomplishments: It pays quiet tribute not only to him but to his mother, who refused to accept the idea that physical limitations must lead to mental limitations. She had an enormous number of children - Christy had 13 surviving brothers and sisters - but she managed to give her most troubled child the love and help he needed to become someone who's special by any measure.
``My Left Foot'' has been directed in a rather ordinary way by Jim Sheridan, an experienced theater director making his feature-film debut. There's nothing ordinary about Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Christy Brown, however. True, he's not the only skilled performer in the cast, which also includes Cyril Cusack, the late Ray McAnally, and Brenda Fricker as Brown's mother, as well as Hugh O'Conor playing Brown as a child. Yet it's Day-Lewis who lights up the screen most brilliantly. He has already won praise for his vivid acting in ``My Beautiful Laundrette'' and ``A Room With a View,'' and for his less exciting work in ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' last year. His portrayal of Christy Brown is sure to earn him more raves than ever. And if the Oscars don't take notice of him, I'll be amazed.