Sunday, November 13, 2016

Peter Middleton & James Spinney's adaptation of John Hull's memoir, NOTES ON BLINDNESS

John Hull (1935-2015) was a theologian/professor at The University of Birmingham who, at the age of 48 lost his sight, which had been failing for some time. "To understand blindness, to seek its meaning, to retain the fullness of my humanity," he explained at the time, the man began an audio diary, recording his physical, emotional, intellectual and philosophical responses to this life-changing situation.

All this eventually became Mr. Hull's memoir -- On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness -- which has now taken that further step into a motion picture adaptation titled NOTES ON BLINDNESS via two fledgling filmmakers, Peter Middleton and James Spinney (shown above, with Mr. Middleton on the right). The pair worked closely with the Hull family in the making of the film (Hull died last year before he could see the result of his collaboration), and their modus operandi was to use Hull's actual recordings for all the film's dialog -- which is confined to Hull, and occasionally his wife, speaking aloud -- which has then been lip-synched by the two actors involved (Dan Skinner, below, right, who looks a good ten to fifteen years younger than 48) and Simone Kirby, shown at bottom).

Technically, the movie is handled surprisingly well. The editing (by Julian Quantrill) and cinematography (Gerry Floyd) is as professional as can be, and the end result is seamless. But it is also practically sonombulent. The droning voice seldom varies, nor do the movie's visuals. Occasionally the filmmakers try to inject some pizzazz -- nightmares and fantasies such as a tsunami in a supermarket -- but this ends up seeming more jarring and out of place than anything else.

Much of Hull's verbiage is thoughtful and sometimes exquisitely phrased, so that you can imagine enjoying the experience of reading it rather than having to watch the often encumbering visuals. A scene of rain, with Hull's explanation of how this is somehow an audial equivalent of the act of seeing, is especially telling and beautiful. But then a second rain episode toward the finale -- shown below, with the water drenching the office, the tape recorder and even the family -- is simply silly.

The family visits Hull's parents in Australia, which provides some diversion -- and an occasion for fear and guilt -- then we're back in England again, which serves Hull as both a treat and a kind of rebirth. TrustMovies also found the film's time-line a bit confusing. At about the fifteen-minute point, we're told that two years have passed. But then, toward the end, it is still only 1985, and the film, or so I thought, began in 1983.

Whatever. Despite the random and often wonderfully specific and cogent reactions to his condition, I found myself almost fighting the visuals to better come to grips with the words. Consequently, Notes on Blindness proved one of the least immersive movies about its own subject matter that I have so far seen. Some of the British reviews were quite otherwise, so perhaps your reaction to the film will be different from mine.

During the end credits, we get a glimpse of the actual Mr. and Mrs. Hull before this movie -- distributed by BOND/360 and running 86 minutes -- comes to its close.  It makes its U.S. theatrical debut this Wednesday, November 16, in New York City at Film Forum, and then the following Friday it will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. Elsewhere? Over the next few weeks and months, the film will play a number of cities across the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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