The Essence of Being Free

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Review of 'Inside I'm Dancing', director Damien O'Donnell

I must admit, when I first heard about this film, I shuddered and thought no way do I want to see it. Being disabled, my experience is that films about disability rarely get it right - they are either mawkishly sentimental, or overly preachy and patronising. For most disabled people their life is their life. There seems nothing brave or extraordinary about how it's lived - it just is. Film-makers rarely catch this or even understand it, partly of course because life as it is, ordinary and humdrum, does not make for riveting cinema.

Yet this film shows the struggle to be 'ordinary' in a way that is absolutely captivating, with characters who feel real and alive, whose battles with the system are small on the grand scale of things, but seismic in their everyday lives.

The story focuses on two young Dublin men: Rory has a severe form of muscular dystrophy, which leaves him with some movement of his head, and the use of two fingers on one hand, but otherwise paralysed. His mouth, however, works perfectly and to brilliant effect; Michael has cerebral palsy, which allows little control of the movement of his limbs, and affects his speech in such a way as he finds it almost impossible to make himself understood.

Michael, now in his early twenties, has been institutionalised all his life. He lives in a maternalistic and patronising establishment, which offers the inmates a certain type of kindness but no independence or choice in their everyday lives. When Rory arrives at the establishment, Michael's world is blown apart. Uniquely, Rory understands every word Michael says. And Rory is hell-bent on getting out of institutions and living a 'normal' life. He frightens and fascinates Michael, and draws him into this battle for independence.

Grants are available for disabled people to live independently and employ their own carers (personal assistants), but Rory keeps being rejected for a grant due to his 'irresponsibility'. This includes collecting for the home, and taking the bucket full of coins to the pub, where he gets Michael drunk. It involves him playing loud thrash metal music late at night, or joining a group of Dublin youngsters in a joy-riding escapade. For Rory irresponsibility is an essential part of being free.

Michael eventually seeks a grant in his own right, and is accepted. The two move into a flat together, and employ Siobhan - a young woman the pair meet in a pub - as a personal assistant. The film charts the joys, triumphs, heartbreaks and tragedies of their newfound freedom.

For Michael the closeness of the friendship with Siobhan is easily confused with love. Rory, who can sometimes be cruel, is particularly hard on Siobhan once it becomes clear that Michael is falling in love with her. This hostility is borne both out of fear for his friend's feelings and possibly out of jealousy.

Yet all of these events, good and bad, are part of Michael's journey to liberation and independence. In the bittersweet conclusion, it is Michael who fights for Rory's independence.

That this is all done in a way that is humorous, believable and without being patronising is to the great credit of the writer and the director. However, huge plaudits must also go to the actors who play the three main characters: from the moment Rory (James McAvoy) appears you love the character. Steven Robinson (who plays Michael) possibly has the more difficult task, but he pulls it off brilliantly. Without ever directly understanding a word he says, Michael nonetheless becomes a rounded, moving and utterly believable character. And Romola Garai as Siobhan, the tough young Dublin woman who will take no crap, provides excellent support to the pair.

Given the outstanding performances by the two lead actors, it is worth noting that some controversy has grown up around the fact that neither actor is disabled. There are those in the disability movement who feel this devalues the film.

I have no idea whether suitable disabled actors were available, and would take some persuading that better performances could have been delivered than those given by Macavoy and Robinson. If not, then it would be mere tokenism to have granted others the role.

As I said at the beginning, films about disability fill me with dread. This one though is exceptional. That should surely be the starting point for any disabled activist. It is great that such a film has been made - it is great that it is so well scripted, and great that it is so well performed. We don't get that very often - we should celebrate this film, not diss it, and whatever you do, don't miss it.