'Notes on Blindness': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A deeply sensitive interpretation of the subject's reflective testament on disability.

John Hull, whose writings were praised by Oliver Sacks, shares what it feels like to lose his sight in Peter Middleton and James Spinney's doc.

Theologian John Hull was a family man in his forties when he lost his sight. As a scholar with a deeply reflective bent, he decided to document the experience, keeping an audio diary on cassettes starting in 1983. Those musings led to a lauded memoir, but they become something more artful in Peter Middleton and James Spinney's debut documentary Notes on Blindness. Made with the offscreen participation of Hull, who died last year, the film draws sighted viewers into phenomena they hopefully will never witness firsthand. Certainly it will be welcomed by those whose loved ones have lost their sight (many of whom will likely appreciate it, as well); but this encounter with a wounded but undaunted man also will appeal to viewers beyond that community.

Expanding in a curious way on the familiar doc tactic of reenactments, the film casts two actors to portray Hull and his wife Marilyn in '80s settings; rather than accompanying these scenes with voiceover, it has the actors lip-sync to the real subjects' recorded conversations. So if husband and wife are standing looking out at a beach, one might ask the other, "Do you remember the way the tide came in?," and seem to simultaneously inhabit two moments in time.

While that device produces one kind of emotional connection between the viewer and this couple facing a challenge, the doc spends more time building a more solitary bond between us and Hull. We see a single wheel of an unspooling cassette (one of several subtle references to the eye here) as we hear Hull's original recordings. He muses quietly on practical matters, like the difficulty of being a blind professor when nearly none of the scholarly tomes he needs are available in Braille. (He soon enlists a team of volunteer readers to record on-demand books on tape.)

But he speaks more memorably about both the emotional impact of this life change and the perceptual shifts accompanying it. Realizing how the wind and rain afford a kind of vision when he's outside, he imagines a supernatural rain that would similarly reveal objects in the kitchen or living room. (Middleton and Spinney bring that fancy to life.)

Producers have delivered a virtual reality accompaniment to the film, which allows users to partly put themselves in Hull's shoes. Though it is novel, and hints at further experiments VR authors might do along these lines, Notes on Blindness is more than sufficient to prove that sightlessness, however unwelcome, is a richer experience than we may assume.

Distributor: Bond/360
Production company: Archer's Mark
Cast: Dan Skinner, Simone Kirby
Directors-screenwriters: Peter Middleton, James Spinney
Producers: Mike Brett, Jo-Jo Ellison, Steve Jamison, Peter Middleton, James Pinney, Alex Usborne
Director of photography: Gerry Floyd
Production designer: Damien Creagh
Costume designer: Julia Drummond-Haig
Editor: Julian Quantrill
Composers: James Ewers, Noah Wood
director: Amy Hubbard

Not rated, 90 minutes