Directed by Peter Middleton, James Spinney
Starring John Hull, Marilyn Hull, Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby Film Review by Colin Lomas
Unless you have first-hand experience of losing your sight, it is a very difficult concept to fully understand. Many describe it as their worst nightmare; the sudden struggle with daily chores, not being able to visually read, not being able to see when your child is in danger. Yet for all these struggles, people carry on, their life changing but not necessarily for the worse. Many flourish in times of perceived hardship and in the wake of extreme events. Yet sometimes it is difficult to find a balanced view of these types of stories; either they become a sorrowful tome of pity or a chest-punching anecdote of inspiration. Notes on Blindness is wonderfully neither of these; rather an account of a man going blind in his own words and from his own thoughts. A few days before the birth of his first son in 1983, theologian and academic author John Hull started to go blind. As he wrestled with his new life without sight, he decided to record an audio diary on a series of tapes, documenting his personal thoughts as well as scholarly reflections on losing one of his primary senses. The result was a wonderful and sometimes beautiful record of how blindness affects one’s life. Although at times he is understandably sad with the visual darkness enveloping him, Hull also explains in depth the details he once overlooked; how rain can produce environmental dimensions, the musical qualities of leaves blowing in the wind, the smell of flowers in the field. His drive and perceptive thought processes are contagious; when realising that most audio books were throwaway railway station crime thrillers, Hull set about employing thirty people to transcribe academic manuscripts for him. Together with Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby playing Hull and his wife on-screen, Notes on Blindness uses Hull’s own words and voice to collate these thoughts into a wonderful insight of the months and years of life after diagnosis.
In many ways, and with probable intent, the visuals of Notes on Blindness feel somewhat peripheral. In fact, the ninety minutes would work just as well as an audio book. That’s not to say Skinner and Kirby do anything less than a worthy job (their lip-syncing to the tapes is wonderfully seamless), rather that Hull’s eloquence and honesty completely captivates his audience. His intelligent musings and analysis are vividly fascinating and refreshing as his emotions are put through the wringer. He swings between anger, sorrow, tolerance and positivity yet tellingly never spirals into self-pity. His deep religious beliefs are constantly assessed and questioned as he starts to forget the faces of his family, yet it is his faith which finally brings him the strength to continue. It is this battle with God which seems to be the lynchpin of the acceptance of his condition. There are certainly heart rendering moments; his young son asking him if tears would bring back his sight, yet Hull’s emotional concern always seems to be about the effects his sight-loss has on others rather than himself. The one thing that the pictures do well is to capture the internalisation and claustrophobic nature of suddenly losing one’s sight. The increasingly dark blurry images of the world around Hull harmonise the audio excellently as he describes the ever decreasing focus on the outside world. Notes on Blindness was a tough story to put to film, yet Middleton and Spinney have managed to execute it excellently. The movie’s fresh yet simple approach could have backfired but the directors’ obvious care and love for the story has allowed them to create a captivating and enduring picture of a man coming to terms with a life-changing event. By the end, the overriding emotion toward Hull is not one of sorrow or pity but of absolute respect; a story of a caring, intellectual man who always has his family at the heart of any analysis of his condition.