Starring: Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby, John M. Hull
In 1983 writer and theologian John Hull went blind. In order to help him come to terms with his new life he began keeping a diary of audiocassette recordings explaining his experiences and inner thoughts. Using visual accompaniments to his original voice recordings, including actors lip-syncing to the recording of what John and his family actually said, Notes on Blindness provides a raw and authentic depiction of a man’s account of what it is like to lose one’s sight.
One of my favourite films of 2015 was the exceptional and very challenging Swedish drama Blind (review), which used all the unique characteristics and tools at the disposal of cinema to attempt to visually depict the mind-set of a blind person. Well, while that was a very effective work of fiction Notes on Blindness goes even further to be a visual depiction of the real words recorded by someone inflicted with blindness. Using actors saying in sync what was recorded by John Hull and his family, and visual depictions of the thoughts and feelings he describes in these recordings Notes on Blindness is a deeply engaging, challenging and haunting film.
There was always the risk that such a depiction of the source material could trivialise and sanitize it, making the film style over substance, but directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney skilfully avoid these potential pitfalls to only enhance the raw power of the source material, especially as all the film’s audio is the original tape recordings of John Hull’s audio diary of his own personal experiences of going blind.
There is perhaps some poignant irony that a visual medium can depict in such an engaging way the experience of someone losing their ability to see, as this is a sense that we do take for granted. However to describe losing the sense of sight as life-changing is an understatement, and of course it would mean never being able to appreciate the visual splendour of so many films, of which Notes on Blindness is one.
Of course it is not only the ability to see and create new visual memories that is lost forever, but the ability to remember those that had previously been created as the loss of sight means the brain gradually loses the ability to recollect any visual memories. This is described very vividly in the voice over recordings by John Hull, the fact he is an eloquent and academic man undoubtedly means that his description is that more vivid, accessible and narrative-friendly, but there is undoubtedly a heartfelt rawness to the film that could only ever be delivered by using Hull’s own recordings. It is heart breaking to hear John Hull describe how he is eventually unable to remember what his wife or children look like, or recollect any of his childhood memories.
There is also of course the new reality that John has to get used to, as his role in the lives of those he is closest to has also changed forever. One of the film’s most heart breaking moments is an actual recording of when John can hear that his daughter has fallen over and hurt herself, yet he cannot help her.
However, Notes on Blindness is not simply a one-note intentionally melancholic account of the tragedy of blindness; John Hull’s story is far more than that, and that is what makes it such an inspiring and unforgettable film. John tried to use his other enhanced senses to experience the world around him, continue working as a lecturer and engage in shared experiences with his family, appreciating the simple things that we all take for granted in new ways to help him feel alive.
From start to finish Notes on Blindness engages and inspires in equal measure, and this is not only down to the undeniable raw power of the source material, but also the film’s stunning visuals and performances. Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby deliver exceptional performances as John and Marilyn Hull respectively; it should not be underestimated how difficult it is to not only have their exact mouth moments be exactly in sync with the vocal delivery of the real recordings that are used, but also how to visually show the emotions of the characters. They both portray the emotions of the two characters exceptionally, with very understated performances, and their performances play a pivotal role in just how successfully the film depicts its subject matter.
Likewise Notes on Blindness, despite its low budget, is a very cinematic film and fully justifies its release on the big screen (sadly I only saw it in Curzon home cinema on my TV, but it was obvious that it would be so much better the cinema). With its exceptional sound design and use of visuals, the overall experience of the film only serves as a compliment to John Hull’s voice recordings of his personal experiences and inner most thoughts and feelings, making it all the more emotionally involving.
With so much cynicism in the film industry at the moment, it is always great to be reminded that there are films out there like Notes on Blindness that can engage and inspire in equal measure and are made with a genuine creativity and passion. For me the best films are the ones make the viewer apply the experiences of the film to their own lives, and Notes on Blindness will leave a lasting impression on all film fans. It is not only a deeply engaging and unforgettable film, but a poignant reminder of how sight is perhaps the most important of the senses and the one we would struggle without the most, and for us film fans, that is particularly poignant.
An unforgettable and unique cinematic experience that should be seen by all; Notes on Blindness is an example of the heights cinema as a unique visual medium can achieve. This is an exceptional film that will haunt and inspire in equal measure.