It is not often that Netflix is an instrument that moves me to think of the words of John Milton, but this weekend it did.
Despite the fact that its wonky algorithm keeps sending me emails about movies and TV shows I have no interest in seeing, I sat down yesterday to watch a documentary that I heard a lot about when it was released in the UK, but failed to see in a cinema over here. A mate at work had heard it was coming to Netflix and so I searched and found the film and watched it yesterday.
The film is called, Notes on Blindness and it was released last year. Watching it, I think it is possibly as close to a poem as a film can get. The film is a documentary, based on audio recordings made by the academic John Hull after his failing eyesight finally gave out and left him completely sightless in 1983, almost three centuries after Milton wrote his famous sonnet 19.
How do you convey the experience of someone losing their sight through a medium which is totally reliant on it to communicate? The answer is that you do not try to recreate the blindness but the experience of becoming blind – the pragmatic first steps, followed by the unexpected waves of emotions in all their varieties and degrees. You put the voice at the centre and build the word around it – and you make a film that is a rich and sensual experience for the viewer as the story unfolds.
The film uses the actual voice recordings from John (who died last year) and his wife while actors lip sync to their voices. Through his recordings, he recounts the tiny details of his family life and much bigger experience of how his blindness has impacted his day to day existence. The film is a timepiece as well, with carefully recreated images of the era and the two countries in which it is set. While the story is John’s we see the effects on other members of his family and the unwavering love of his wife and children as he navigates his journey through darkness and we become aware as viewers that other senses become heightened.
It is beautifully filmed, a bit of a nostalgia trip for me as I grew up in the time it is set – a time capsule of the UK in a house that does not seem to change with the time – perhaps to allow John to move around without difficulty. Radio cassette players feature heavily – something we used to use as kids to record our own voices as me made ‘radio shows’ on the long summer holidays. One long sequence, which goes on for a good few minutes, is about a realization he had about the sound of rain and is just beautiful.
If you like quick-fire gags, jump cuts and action-packed plots then good for you, so do I, but this film offers a mediation and a piece of art that is something else. Give it your time, lend it your patience and the reward will be all yours.