There was a time when people assumed that the plastic bag toting Angelos Epithemiou was Dan Skinner in his entirety. This year we’ve been exposed to a wide spectrum of the actor’s range via an eclectic selection of non-comedy film roles: from a sinister thug in Ben Wheatley‘s High Rise to a secret agent in the children’s film, Swallows & Amazons. But perhaps one of Dan’s most unexpected and demanding recent roles has been the lead in the critically-aclaimed film Notes on Blindness, a biographical dramatisation of the life of writer and theologian, John Hull – released today on DVD.
Dan plays the part of John in the film, a vibrant intellectual, loving husband, and omni-present father. In the summer of 1983, a few days before the birth of his first son, John lost his sight. Although his eye sight had been deteriorating for years, he was crushed when it disappeared completely. He knew that if he didn’t try to understand his blindness it would destroy him, so he began keeping an audio diary to help him explore his thoughts, feelings, memories and dreams in this new, dark world he found himself inhabiting.
Notes on Blindness combines the original sound recordings made by John with actors’ performances – with the cast lips-syncing to John’s spoken words and the ambient family hubbub that’s audible in the background on the tapes. The result is part-documentary and part-drama, sensitively handled and cleverly put-together into an intensely personal film.
The action takes us on an emotional journey through the lifecycle of John’s sight loss: his refusal to accept it psychologically even when he appears to be dealing with it on a practical level, the shifting dynamic he experiences with his beloved family, and the loss of his own sense of self. Ultimately John is forced to learn to live with his blindness, and it’s only when he accepts this that he is able to ‘see’ clearly again, having achieved a changed, and enhanced, consciousness in the process. “It’s a gift,” he observes later. “Not a gift I want – but it is a gift.”
Both Dan and his co-star, Simone Kirby, who plays his wife, are astonishing in the film. They manage to convey the emotional upheaval of John’s blindness through natural, nuanced performances which harmonise perfectly with the audio to which they’re tethered. The anger and frustration that John felt at not being able to be a proper husband and father (as he saw it) is particularly touching, and often heartbreaking, expressed, as it is, without the standard dramatic histrionics of Hollywood.
From a technical perspective too, the pair deserve plaudits. Ordinarily, actors have two tools in their armoury with which to connect with the audience: physical performance and vocal performance. In this film one of these is removed, and instead the actors are reliant on the vocal performance of someone else – someone who isn’t a film actor. Granted, its a vocal performance that’s 100% authentic, which is a good start, but it wasn’t recorded with the intention of being heard by others, and it’s not necessarily how these particular actors would have played out these moments if left to their own devices.
On the one hand this means striving for lip-synching perfection on an almost molecular level, but it’s much more than that – it also means finding precisely the right body language to seamlessly connect together what the viewer hears and what they see on screen to create a cohesive, singular whole; to look like if it’s emitting from one person. And that’s what the actors achieve here – no small feat.
The film also looks great; the golden colours and dusty textures manage to convey a distinctive point in time and place at the same time as emphasising the visual treasures that Jon can no longer enjoy himself. Directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton provide the viewer with an engaging tapestry of beautifully-shot dialogue and narrative, alongside glimmers and hints of visual symbolism – metaphors for what John is experiencing. It enhances the personal drama without being heavy-handed.
One important aspect of the film which has rarely been mentioned in reviews is how thought-provoking it is, particularly for those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy full sight. We discover that John’s brain specifically yearns for visual stimulation when it has been deprived of it for a while, no matter how much other sensory input it receives; we learn that he can better recall what his family look like via his memory of photographs of them than through his memory of them as real people; and we’re shown how the sound of rain defines the shape of the physical objects it falls upon, enabling John to briefly ‘see’ the world again while the rain falls (he longs for it to rain inside).
It is these ‘philosophical’ human insights which are particularly fascinating, and I would have loved to have been given more of them. The film drives you to appreciate the stuff that you see and take for granted every day: I devoured every colour, shape and texture that I came across when I left the cinema.
Inspiring, original and intelligent, Notes on Blindness is definitely worth a look. It’s available now on DVD or via the usual on demand platforms.