Before Eddie Redmayne played Stephen Hawking, there was only one film portraying disability that garnered my utmost respect.
James McAvoy has starred in such films as “The Last King of Scotland” and “Atonement” alongside the likes of Forest Whitaker, Cate Blanchett and Kiera Knightly. Currently, he plays a young Charles Xavier in the film reboot of the X-Men series. But before sitting in the most famed wheelchair of science fiction, in 2004 he sat in a slightly less futuristic wheelchair to deliver a brilliant performance as the title character of a little known Irish film called “Rory O’Shea Was Here” (released in Europe as “Inside I’m Dancing”).
The first time I saw the film, I was watching TV with my mom; when I was flipping through the channels she noticed characters in wheelchairs and said, “Let’s see what this is about!” I rolled my eyes, “Really? I hate movies about people with disabilities. It’s either a sob-fest, or happy-go-lucky inspirational. Either way nothing rings true to life. Don’t make me watch this.”
I’m glad my mom pulled rank.
Rory O’Shea is a foul-mouthed, quick-witted, resolute young man with Duchene muscular dystrophy and none-too-happy about finding himself living in an institution. At the Carrigmore Residential Home for the Disabled, he is welcomed “home” by the program director and he asks, “Do I get me own front door key?” When she responds that they do not give out front door keys, he replies, “Well it’s not home then, is it?”
Rory introduces himself to the room full of residents by saying “Rory O’Shea. Duchene muscular dystrophy. Besides the full vocal range, I have the use of two fingers of my right hand, sufficient for self-propulsion and self-abuse. You can shake me hand or kiss me ass, but don’t expect me to reciprocate.”
His charismatic personality and propensity for disturbing the peace of this once docile group home catches the attention of Michael. Michael has severe cerebral palsy; a wallflower his entire life, he needs to use an alphabet card to spell out words because he has a speech impediment so severe that no one can understand him. It turns out that one person can understand him: Rory. When he asks how this is possible, Rory says, “I spent six years in class next to a kid who makes you sound like Lawrence f****ing Olivier.”
Rory and Michael strike up a very unlikely but extremely genuine friendship. An actor named Steven Robertson – whom I have not seen in anything before or since – plays Michael. Everything about his performance is utterly convincing, right down to the muscle contractures in his face, fingers and toes. His speech impediment is so expertly delivered that even I could not understand every line he spoke. Living with cerebral palsy myself, if there was a flaw somewhere in his performance I would have found it. I did not even realize until weeks later that neither McAvoy nor Robertson have disabilities themselves. When I did, I was absolutely floored.
With Robertson in particular, I could not believe that an able-bodied actor was able to do what he did as convincingly as he did it; everything from his physical spasticity to his speech deficit were so perfectly embodied, I found myself wondering how it was even possible for someone to learn and master such nuances. I was absolutely stunned that Robertson could perform so flawlessly without having cerebral palsy himself.
Michael almost never ventures out and he asks Rory “what’s out there”. Rory says, “What’s out there? “Out there’s ‘out there’! I should be out there. Don’t you wanna be like everyone else? Get drunk, get arrested, get laid!”
This film is not inspiration porn. Instead, it bucks the notion spectacularly... an example: Rory, Michael and the other residents, along with their caregivers, sitting on a bustling street-corner in Dublin, with buckets in their laps, “collecting” funds for their group home. Rory sees Michael notice a woman and says, “Follow me, I’ll show you some real romance.” Rory and Michael wander into a bar and eye two attractive women. As they roll up to the women Rory confidently proclaims, “Congratulations girls, you’ve been chosen ‘cripple companions of the month!’ I’m Rory, this is Michael and we come bearing treasure in our laps.” Rory is –of course – referring to the collection buckets. When Michael protests that it is dishonest to spend the money, Rory says, “Life is dishonest Michael. It’s for funding the needs of disabled; I’m disabled and I need a drink!”
Rory and Michael buy numerous rounds from their collection change; it is clear that Michael has never tasted alcohol before in his life. On their way out Rory accidentally runs into the shins of a drunken man, who grabs Rory and threatens to hit him. An attractive young blonde named Siobhan comes to his defense.
Siobhan tells Rory to be careful, because “if a fella hit you in the mouth you’d have nothing left that works,” to which he responds, “I have a pair below that might, given the right stimulus.”
Eventually Rory and Michael find their independence, living together in a ground floor wheelchair accessible flat. But this comes at a very high cost to Michael. They hire Siobhan as their personal care attendant. Suddenly you find yourself watching one of the most unexpected and refreshingly real love triangles ever put on film.
But before the harsh realities of independent life kick in, Rory pulls the director of the home aside and tells her with great sincerity, “If I’ve said or done anything to offend you at any time… then good.”
This movie portrays life with a disability as it really is –simultaneously hilarious, painfully awkward and heartbreakingly tragic. All of this is brought to life by two stellar able-bodied actors. I would love the opportunity to meet McAvoy and Robertson and thank them from the bottom of my heart for portraying the lives of people with disabilities with incredible authenticity, depth and respect – from the laugh-out-loud hysterics to the moments that bring tears to your eyes and everything in between.
I urge everyone to find this movie and watch it. I promise it will provide a truly authentic snapshot of life with a disability, encompassing everything: unflinching strength of spirit, humour and perseverance in the face of unimaginable obstacles, lack of control, powerlessness, and feeling unworthy of love. As much as I love this film, I do not watch it often, because it hits close to home and it hits hard.
I defy you not to be moved to both laughter and tears. If you have a disability, I defy you not to identify with even a small amount of what you see, from either or both protagonists. Finally, I defy anyone with a disability to tell me that these able-bodied actors did us any disservice. In my humble opinion, we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
-Layla Guse Salah, Disability Today Network