Rory O'Shea Was Here (2004)

Dan Zak

Rory rails against a society that is ultimately supportive of him. Instead, he should be rebelling against the screenplay, his more immediate handicap.

Rory O'Shea Was Here

Director: Damien O'Donnell
Cast: James McAvoy, Steven Robertson, Romola Garai, Brenda Fricker
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2005-02-04 (Limited release)

The introduction of a rambunctious catalyst into a static environment is tried and true formula. Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Randall P. McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Inevitably, such characters are fighting against something, be it the eternal damnation of humanity or Nurse Ratched.

Rory O'Shea is different. Not because he's immobile -- confined by muscular dystrophy to a motorized wheelchair -- or because he's an insufferable cad, but because he is a rebel with no direction or resolve. Early in Rory O'Shea Was Here, he takes up residence in the Carrigmore Home for the Disabled, somewhere outside of Dublin. At first, he seems another McMurphy, ready to shake up the day-to-day monotony of the hospital ward with his sharp tongue, wild-child image, and penchant for punk music. His bleached spiky hair and nose ring are flourishes to the whole Rebel Package, and we are convinced he will invigorate every miserable, disabled soul in the home. Instead, Rory targets one melancholy individual, the sweet Michael Connelly (Steven Robertson), whose mobility and speech have been wrecked by cerebral palsy. Rory can interpret the words behind Michael's significant speech impairment, so the two become friends, and eventually Michael is gelling his own hair.

Despite the skepticism of Carrigmore's supervisor Eileen (Brenda Fricker), Rory engages Michael in his efforts to get out of the home, to live life on his own terms. Their friendship becomes terribly convenient when Rory learns Michael's estranged father is a wealthy barrister. Rory convinces Michael that his father can make up for years of neglect by paying for a specially designed flat for the pair. Michael relents, as does his dad.

Because Rory O'Shea Was Here is so earnest and eager to please, its failure is all the more unpleasant. Once Rory and Michael are free of Carrigmore, the film descends from cliché to maudlin. Rory and Michael have to hire someone to clean, clothe, and feed them. So they pick out the most beautiful blonde girl (Romola Garai) in a pub, ask her, and -- score! -- she agrees to become their fulltime caretaker. What the film seems to say is that although you may be disabled, you can still con a friend's family into paying your rent and convince a sweet girl to give you daily sponge baths.

Fricker's presence here reminds me of My Left Foot, the 1989 film in which she played opposite Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy. Christy and Rory are alike in that they are disabled Irish men with fiery tempers and salty tongues. My Left Foot is based on the life story of a real person, while Rory O'Shea was "inspired by the experiences of real people." This explains the crucial disparity between these two characters -- one is dimensional and true, the other a generalization. Christy lives life as a constant battle to express himself through painting and poetry, but the battle is not about the handicap. Rory lives his life as a constant battle to express anger over his condition, and the battle is all about the handicap.

While sympathy abounds for Michael and Siobhan, it is in short supply for Rory. So screenwriter Jeffrey Caine makes a desperate move to retain our sympathy. The story turns tragic, and this decision undermines all that has come before it. Before this turn, Rory -- God love him -- is recognizable. He wants to be adored by women like everyone else, he wants to be arrested if he steals a car like everyone else, he wants to dance like everyone else.

That he accomplishes these things at the expense of other people's time, feelings, and money is not surprising. Neither is it that he's occasionally taken to task for his presumptions, especially by Eileen, who sees early on that Rory and Michael can't live "on their own." But Rory views her assertion as an insult rather than an insight. Therein lies the futility of his rebellion: he rails against a society that is ultimately supportive of him. Instead, he should be rebelling against the screenplay, his more immediate handicap. Its manipulations feel repetitive and unpleasant, like an amusement park ride. Oh, the car whips around again? Who saw that coming? Let's get off and get some fried dough.

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