You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, Joni Mitchell wasn’t singing about her eyesight but the incredible Notes on Blindness does just that. The story of theologian John Hull and his irreversible transition from seeing to blindness tackles the confrontation of man’s – literal – darkest hours whilst remaining watchable, relatable and most importantly, optimistic.
The film, written and Directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney and using the audio tapes which form the body of Hull’s book Touching the Rock, synchronises the original recordings and interview audio direct from John with mouthing actors to visualise his inspiring story. Maintaining his work as a University lecturer was of utmost importance to John so he tackled his experience of going blind methodically. Initially asking colleagues to record books for him and learning braille is enough for John, but, as he describes, memories and images distort and fade in the darkness of his mind which makes keeping a grip on the life behind the dark veil increasingly difficult. He decides understanding blindness is his only way forward and begins an inspired series of dictated, recorded audio notes to distance John, the academic, from the John, the blind person, until he’s ready for them to become one. John’s notes are beautiful, profound, gritty, and sad; they’re inspiring, life-affirming.
There are so many tear-jerking moments in Notes in Blindness. John shares the time when his young daughter suggested crying her tears into his eyes might heal them like in Rapunzel or how helpless he feels outside his own home or a similarly controlled environment. He tells how crushed and alone he felt when the last rays detected by his brain informing him when his wife passed by a window or if a light was on or off were eclipsed by the growing black spot his detached retinas propagated. If you don’t cry a little from what you hear, you might be deaf. On the other.. sense, beautiful shallow focus with wavy foregrounds forcibly reduce our dependence on visual stimulation and often turn the film into a more suitable “lightly visual audiobook”. Some set-pieces however, especially one at the end, are among my favourite shots of the year in cinema.
Nobody can say 2016 has been a weak year for film when films like Notes on Blindness are being released.