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Thursday 12 December 2019

James Dempsey : Why we should give Daniel Day Lewis some peace

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln looks acaross a battlefield
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln looks acaross a battlefield

James Dempsey

This weekend marks the Irish release of Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg's biopic of the American president's efforts to outlaw slavery and end the civil war in the final few months of his life.

A project eight years in the making, recounting the shady dealings often required to turn ideological moralities into political realities, Lincoln is a chamber piece of subtle speeches and exquisite performances. And in the same week as Barack Obama's second inauguration, Lincoln's political toing and froing feels distinctly fresh and timely.

To the forefront of the film, of course, is Daniel Day Lewis' work as Honest Abe, in what is perhaps the quietest and most restrained performance of the esoteric actor's career. It should come as no surprise that the most-celebrated actor of his generation playing the most-celebrated American president of all time has already resulted in mass award celebrations.

Day Lewis, famous for living for months on end in character, originally turned down the role, concerned that he couldn't do justice to this idol of American politics. But after tireless campaigning by the director, Day Lewis signed on. Perhaps it was written in the stars – who better to play the man whose face graces the penny and five dollar-bill than the man whose face has appeared on an An Post stamp?

Of course, awards' season presents its own nationalistic difficulties with regard to Day Lewis. The son of an Irish-born Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, raised and educated in England's green and pleasant land, Day Lewis made his way across the Irish Sea in 1989, taking up dual citizenship in 1993.

As such, we Irish have taken him to our hearts, and at times have become rather militant about it. When The Daily Mail listed the actor among the "Britons" to have found triumph at the Golden Globes earlier this month, the furore was felt across social media.

With the bombastic roars of Day-Lewis' previous Oscar-winning role as Daniel Plainview, the angry claims on the real Daniel rang forth. Looking to our nearest neighbours, showing more concern than over Blighty's future in the EU, the Tweets came thick and fast, declaring "He's abandoned his child… he's abandoned his child… -hood Britishness and moved over here. He's ours, you can't have him. He's a freeman of Wicklow. He drinks in the Roundwood Inn. He's so Irish that he recently had a Gathering with Steven Spielberg and Sally Field."

It's embarrassing, these childish claims on a man's nationality. Have we, as a country, such a lack of self-confidence that we must latch on to any successful person with vice-like grips of national expectation? Day Lewis moved here two decades ago, leaving behind the city he still holds dear because "… there came a time when I needed to be private and was forced to be public by the press. I couldn't deal with it."

Now instead of offering him the solace of that privacy, the serenity of anonymity in a place that took pride in not caring too much about celebrity and fame, we bear our teeth and snarl with ignorance when the other half of his dual citizenship claims him as theirs.

"I have no illusions about the fact that I'm an Englishman living in Ireland," said Day Lewis in a 2008 interview. "Even though I do straddle both worlds and I'm very proud to be able to carry both passports. But I do know where I am from."

Assuming he takes home Oscar on February 24th, when the British media claim him as their own, remember to simply shrug it off and give the man the privacy he wants.

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