Netflix UK film review: Notes on Blindness
Powerful subject matter9
Stunning sound design9.5
Matthew Turner | On 01, Jul 2016
Directors: James Spinney, Pete Middleton
Cast: Dan Renton Skinner, Simone Kirby, John M. Hull
Watch Notes on Blindness online in the UK: Netflix UK / BBC iPlayer / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Amazon Instant video / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Sky Store / Google Play
Directed by first-timers James Spinney and Pete Middleton, this British documentary is based on the work of John M Hull, an Australian-born theologian at the University of Birmingham, whose sight rapidly deteriorated in 1983, when he was in his mid-forties. As a coping strategy, Hull began recording his thoughts, feelings, experiences and observations on audio cassette, eventually turning them into the 1990 book, Touching the Rock.
Hull’s initial approach was extremely practical: realising that books on tape for the blind largely consisted of romances and thrillers, he set about amassing a veritable library of “serious books, recorded sensibly”, including various academic works that he would need for his classes at university. At the same time, he began to use the cassettes in several different ways, from keeping an audio diary, to recording and sending letters to his parents in Australia, and capturing the daily events of his family life, including conversations with his wife and his young children.
Working directly from Hull’s audio tapes, Spinney and Middleton use actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby to lip-synch along to the recordings, a technique that recalls Clio Barnard’s work in The Arbor, though less overtly theatrical in execution. This is particularly effective during the family conversations, especially when a now completely blind Hull relates an exchange with his young son about his eyes being poorly and starts laughing when he realises he still wears his glasses every day.
Given the nature of the recordings, there’s an accompanying stillness to Skinner and Kirby’s performances that works extremely well, creating a slightly eerie effect that is simultaneously distancing (because you sense that it’s a recreation) and intensely involving (because it draws you in and forces you to listen closely to what’s being said).
The film’s stand-out scene, expanded from a short film by the directors, is an extraordinary sequence that illustrates Hull discussing how rainfall affects his immediate environment (“Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything, it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things”) over footage of the rain hitting Hull’s back garden – some beautifully structured sound design work creates an aural landscape and the effect is both wondrous and mesmerising. (If the sound designer doesn’t win some sort of award, then there is officially no justice.)
Hull’s thoughtful, intelligent observations are both fascinating and profoundly moving, especially when discussing his dreams, which are both a gift and a curse, allowing him to dream vividly about regaining his sight and being able to see his children, even as he starts to lose his memory of faces in his day-to-day life (curiously, he can remember photographs much more clearly).
This is an impressively made and deeply affecting documentary that is well worth seeking out.
Notes on Blindness is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription – and on BBC iPlayer until 18th March.