John M. Hull (Dan Renton Skinner) was a theologian who when he was aged forty and settling into his life as a family man, became irreversibly blind when his retinas were detached. He described the experience as if a black disc were moving across his vision, blocking out the light until eventually he would see nothing at all, which is indeed what happened. He did have the support of his family, most importantly his wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby) who helped him every step of the way, sometimes literally, but he was frustrated he would not now watch his children grow up and as for his job, could he still be able to lecture if he was blind? What could he do at all now he had this apparently dreadful disability?
One thing Hull did was to record a diary of cassette tapes as a process of getting to grips with his condition; a naturally thoughtful man, he wanted to understand everything about it and how it changed his relationships with those around him and the world he could now only hear and touch, even his own home becoming an alien place he would have to relearn his way around. Those tapes lay neglected for the best part of thirty years until he decided to hand them over to documentary filmmakers Pete Middleton and James Spinney, and they were immediately enthused about their potential. This film was the result, a work for both the blind and the seeing, which would allow both sides a greater understanding of one another.
A key question that emerges from Hull's monologues is that he pondered over whether he was actually the same person now he had this affliction, and whether he could sustain the same relationships he had had before. If nobody around him could understand what he was going through, what possible empathy could either party have for Hull's new, dark world? This was obviously of great concern since he now relied so much on his wife, and though it might sound like a cliché, but her love genuinely was what kept him going, and as a deep thinker on humanity he would appreciate that while there were times he could feel alone and helpless with this physical state, as long as he had Marilyn there was no reason to abandon all hope.
But what made Notes on Blindness a film rather than a radio play, as the film for voices Blue, directed by Derek Jarman (who actually was sightless when he made it), had been accused of being? Recognising they had to have imagery for the sighted and partially sighted in the audience, Middleton and Spinney hired a cast of actors to play the Hulls and lipsync to the voices, captured on those tapes or in interviews held at the stage the film was put together. This technique had been used before, most notably in The Arbor, the dramatized documentary on playwright Andrea Dunbar, but not very often, yet it was effective here as long as you were not too familiar with what Skinner's actual voice sounded like, which may have been the case thanks to his extensive work in television comedy, often with humorous tones.
He did grow a bushy beard to better resemble Hull, and sported glasses (though it was unclear why those were worn when Hull couldn't see a thing anyway), so with that disguise you would be able to appreciate he was an actor playing a role, and that might have been a sticking point when the results verged on the artificial, meaning this may have been more effective for the blind audiences. Nevertheless, it was easy enough simply to be carried along by the work's meditative mood, as Hull's Australian accented voice gently posited all sorts of parameters to his blindness that ranged from the uselessness he now suffered when it came to protecting his children even at the most basic level (a chilling thought he uneasily considers) to an eventually coming to terms with what he believes was given to him by God. Though even then there are limits to his perception of what purpose that could hold, and the pressing matter that if it was God's will, what was he playing at when Hull would have been far more effective with sight? Yet his message may have not reached as many as it did through his writings and this film, something subtly wondered about here: too high a price to pay? Music by James Ewers and Noah Wood.
[Curzon's DVD has alternative ways of enjoying this appropriate to your degrees of sight, with audio enhanced tracks for the impaired, and a host of short featurettes to fill in the background.]