Every year a few films are released which stand out above the rest – one such example is Notes on Blindness. Released in the summer of 2016, after being adapted from a shorter film in 2014, it exposes a topic many people either can’t comprehend, don’t dare to consider, or simply take advantage of: sight – or, in this docudrama, the lack of it.
In the late 70s, British theologian John M. Hull began losing his. By the early ’80s, he was almost entirely blind. From 1983 onwards, as a lecturer in Religious Education at the University of Birmingham, he began to keep audio tapes of his experiences. Whilst he later adapted these into a book (which were hailed by Oliver Sacks as a “masterpiece”), it’s this film which has spread his story on a wider scale. Cripes – it’s really something to behold.
Notes on Blindness
Based on interviews with Hull and his wife, and using the audiotapes he recorded in the 1980s, the actors lip-synched to these recordings for an effective, innovative, and moving docudrama.
It’s only briefly covered in the film, but Hull didn’t suddenly become blind. He’d had lifelong problems with his eyesight which began in childhood, often leaving him completely blind for short spells. Cataracts would often leave him with giant discs covering his vision, but repeated operations largely left him with good eyesight up until his 40s.
Then his eyes, battered and bruised from those multiple operations, cried enough and into a world of nothingness he plunged. This is where the film begins and Hull’s insights elevate an unknown world to a point of understanding for those of us lucky enough to have perfect vision.
From these insights, the sense of loss is almost palpable throughout, but so is the sense of opportunity. Hull didn’t give up his job and become a recluse, he adapted to his situation and, despite the many frustrations, learned to live with, and excel at, his situation. Yet there remains that loss – the inability to see his delighted children at Christmas, and a return to his childhood home in Australia which leaves him profoundly confused.
Dan Renton Skinner, until now known in the UK for his comedic performances on shows such as Shooting Stars, is excellent as Hull. He helps the professor come across as noble and defiant in the face of his loss. The film, however, truly belongs to the brilliant mind of Hull, who took on his problems, continued with his job, became a creative powerhouse, and offered remarkable insights into the world of blindness.
Unfortunately, Hull had a fall at his home during the summer of 2015 and died shortly afterward. At the end of Notes on Blindness, there’s a brief clip of Hull with his wife listening to the sounds of the ocean.
Oliver Sacks also, ironically, died in the summer of 2015, wrote extensively on neurological conditions and disabilities. We picked up Hull’s 1990 literary account yesterday and will review it next week, with Sack’s foreword stating: “Touching the Rock … has no clear beginning, middle, or end; it lacks literary pretension; it eschews the narrative form itself – and it is, to my mind, a masterpiece.”
The UK’s preminent film critic, Dr. Mark Kermode, has also sung the film’s praises, handing it a 5/5 review in the Guardian: seeing the light despite the darkness. You can also hear his review above. As Sacks called Touching the Rock a “masterpiece”, we’re left to same thing about Notes on Blindness. Give it a watch – it’s inspiring stuff.