Visually depicting sightlessness is a tough task for even the most inventive of moviemakers. (Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, in which Tilda Swinton and others talk over a hypnotically static shade of the title color, remains the experimental gold standard.) The re-created documentary Notes on Blindness takes a distinctly proactive approach to this dilemma, utilizing a steady array of clever effects to depict the rapidly deteriorating vision of its subject. While the film’s other device of having actors lip-synch from existing tape recordings may seem clunky in theory, the sounds and images come together beautifully in practice.
Skipping from milestone to milestone, the film follows the audio diaries of John M. Hull (portrayed on screen by Dan Skinner), a British theology professor who began losing his sight in the early 1980s. As the light steadily drains away, he struggles to find a way to newly relate to his wife (a terrific Simone Kirby) and their increasing number of children.
Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney previously covered this story in an Emmy-winning short, and the padding on their feature debut does sometimes show, most notably during the brief expressionistic scenes unaccompanied by Hull’s thoughts. Occasional self-conscious artiness aside, however, the filmmakers display a real empathy for everyone involved, even at their least lovely moments.
What ultimately sustains Notes on Blindness, though, is simply its subject’s remarkable voice, which remains thoughtful and wonderfully human throughout, whether trying to work up enthusiasm for opening gifts on Christmas morning, experiencing rain falling again for the very first time, or disastrously revisiting a once-favorite vacation spot. Watching Hull move from understandable despair and anger—“How do blind people read big books?” he wonders early in the process—to acceptance and beyond provides a catharsis that not many films can match. Where he ends up is something that should really be experienced.