Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
<www.dsq–sds.org>
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


BOOK & FILM REVIEWS

Rory O'Shea was here. [Film]. (2005). Director Damien O'Donnell. Focus Features. 105 minutes. U.S. DVD release date: June 14, 2005.

Reviewed by Beth Haller, Towson University

Is disability as a topic such a cinema "crowd pleaser" that any filmmaker with a disability–themed script can find funding to get the movie made? That question came to me when viewing Rory O'Shea was here, an Irish film about two young men with disabilities who learn to live independently. This film aspires to explore the lives of its disabled characters but covers no new ground within the disability experience.

It reminded me that having people with disabilities' lives portrayed in film is just a first step. And Rory O'Shea was here is a film that does not move past that first step. What's needed now are films about the multi–faceted people who just happen to have a disability; films about people from a variety of cultural backgrounds; films about people whose stories are rarely told.

Rory O'Shea is loosely based on the lives of some real disability activists in Dublin. The producers received a story about a man with cerebral palsy, Dermot Walsh, who advocated for independent living and personal assistance funding in Dublin. The author of this story, Christian O'Reilly, had worked for Dublin's Centre for Independent Living (CIL) in the mid–1990s. (The producers are very proud of their connections to the disability community, but I think the film would be far superior had the producers, writers, and actors actually been people with disabilities.)

The film depicts Michael Connelly (played by Steven Robertson), who has cerebral palsy and a significant speech disability, and who lives in a home for disabled people. Then spiked–hair and outspoken Rory O'Shea (played by James McAvoy), who has muscular dystrophy and can move only two fingers, comes to the home and begins to shake up Michael's world. The two eventually get an apartment and a personal attendant together. They have a series of adventures and one of them falls in love with their beautiful blond personal attendant.

The producers want us to think of this as a "buddy movie," in which the main characters just happen to be disabled. But would a film about two non–disabled 20–somethings moving into their own apartment be enough to sustain a movie plot? Doubtful.

For those many film audience members ignorant of the disability experience, the producers believe they are educating the populace with Rory O'Shea was here.

"We immediately empathized with the compelling idea of a character who has to learn how to live in the outside world for the first time after 24 years of being institutionalized. We knew it had the potential to be a funny, moving, and uplifting story which challenged our preconceptions on every level," said producer Juanita Wilson of Octagon Films Ltd., in the production notes (Rory O'Shea was here Web site).

However, my concern is that the producers are falling into the same old trap of creating uplifting cinema pablum on the backs of the experiences of people with disabilities. The film has an "isn't it amazing disabled people live on their own" subtext that the producers probably think is wonderful. (Sadly, audience members at the 2004 Edinburgh International Film Festival agreed with the producers and voted the film recipient of its Audience Award.)

I doubt the production team created the film with any malicious intent; in fact, it is probably because they strove to be so sensitive and conscientious that the film comes off as clichéd and sentimental.

The production team did what many would advocate: They had much help from people with disabilities and disability consultants.

"This film is a great opportunity to communicate issues and ideas about people with disabilities in a real and compelling way," said Maureen Gilbert, a consultant on disability issues (Rory O'Shea was here Web site). "Rory and Michael are two engaging lads doing 'laddish' things. Non–disabled people have an incomplete understanding of disability. We tend to box off people whom we label as 'different.' It makes more sense to see people as people."

The production proudly notes that it had seven disability consultants for the film. With all those consultants, it appears that nothing truly edgy, irreverent, or fresh could make it into the film.

When I found out the film was based on some real Irish activists, I found myself wishing for an edgy, Murderball–style documentary about the Dublin disability community instead of this fictional film. Or when the film's Rory character descended into clichéd sarcasm or "wild" behavior, I longed for a truly good laugh from a rerun of South Park featuring wheelchair user Timmy.

For me, Rory O'Shea was here signals something significant in disability cinema — that we have hit a point in Western culture in which some well–intentioned films with disability themes don't need to get made at all.

References

Rory O'Shea was here Web site. (2005). About the production. http://www.roryosheawasheremovie.com/production.html. Accessed Jan. 24, 2006.

 

 





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