Rory O'Shea Was Here (United Kingdom/Ireland, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Rory O'Shea Was Here treads a fine line between offering an unvarnished look at the tribulations of being disabled and stumbling into the realm of Hollywood-inspired claptrap. At its best, Damien O'Donnell's film peers into aspects of the lives of its protagonists that might be overlooked by other films. At its worst, it veers into a morass of cloying and artificial sentimentality. It's a difficult task to make a movie about disabled individuals and not have it seem, at least at times, preachy, politically correct, or pandering. Despite giving us sympathetic and well-developed characters, Rory O'Shea Was Here trips that trap more than once.

When the film opens, Rory O'Shea (James McAvoy) is arriving at the Carrigmore Home for the Disabled. A quadriplegic (as the result of muscular dystrophy) with the use of only two fingers below his neck, Rory exhibits a quick, biting wit and a callous disregard for his fellow "inmates." Improbably, however, Rory forms a friendship with Michael Connolly (Steven Robertson), a cerebral palsy victim whose speech is badly slurred. But Rory can understand him and becomes his unofficial translator. Together, the two wheelchair-bound buddies leave the safety of the group home to venture out on their own. After moving into a specially equipped apartment, they hire Siobhan (Romola Garai) as their personal assistant – not because she's qualified, but because she's young, fun, female, and attractive. Michael, who has little experience with women under the age of 50, is instantly smitten.

The story is about as uninspired as it sounds. What makes Rory O'Shea Was Here worthwhile are the performances of the three leads and the honesty of individual scenes. Many of the sequences detailing the difficulties of living with a dominant disability offer genuine insight into this kind of lifestyle, and the amount of courage that would be required to reach for independence. When Rory has a hat stolen, there is nothing he can do but let the thief go. And a minor inconvenience, like a flight of stairs, can become a major obstacle.

The relationship between Michael and Siobhan is presented in a believable manner. For his part, Michael is in awe of her because she is the first young woman to have shown him kindness. But Michael's misplaced feelings of affection are not reciprocated, and O'Donnell does not insult us by turning Rory O'Shea Was Here into a standard beauty-and-the-beast romance. Unfortunately, Michael's friendship with Rory lacks this element of freshness; the male bonding feels familiar, almost a variation on Rain Man. It's strange that the movie can be perceptive about one relationship while offering little that is original or interesting about another, equally important one.

The acting is of the highest caliber across the board. James McAvoy and Steven Robertson, two able-bodied actors, are convincing as the disabled protagonists. Robertson in particular uses a lot of the conventional tics one would expect from someone in Michael's circumstances, but it's to his credit that I didn't know he wasn't suffering from cerebral palsy until I read his bio. However, the real standout is Romola Garai, who commands the attention of the camera and brings a spark to her part. Although not a well-known name, Garai has appeared in I Capture the Castle and Vanity Fair, and was by far the best thing about Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

The unevenness of Rory O'Shea Was Here makes it difficult to recommend. Two similar yet superior movies come to mind. The first is My Left Foot, which shouldn't be difficult to find in a well-stocked DVD store. (The presence of Brenda Fricker in both movies strengthens the connection.) The other is Dance Me to My Song, which features an incredible performance by real-life cerebral palsy sufferer Heather Rose. As a feel-good movie about disabled youths, Rory O'Shea Was Here gets the job done, but it isn't interesting or daring enough to make it worth a trip to a theater.

Rory O'Shea Was Here (United Kingdom/Ireland, 2004)

Director: Damien O'Donnell
Cast: James McAvoy, Steven Robertson, Romola Garai, Gerard McSorley, Tom Hickey, Brenda Fricker
Screenplay: Jeffrey Caine
Cinematography: Peter Robertson
Music: David Julyan
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-02-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1