Arts

Film: The blind man who taught himself to see anew

Rain described by John Hull: ‘a blanket of differentiated and specialised sound’

Notes on Blindness (U, 90 mins)
★★★★

In 1983, the British theologian John Hull finally went completely blind. By the time the last flicker of light died he had already developed survival strategies.

In 1980, when his sight first began to fail, he had asked: “How do blind people read big books?” and received the depressing answer: “They don’t.” So he requested that friends and colleagues make recordings of numerous academic books on cassettes, and for several years sought to master “all of those little tricks” that would let him navigate a new world without sight.

What came with Hull’s total loss of vision, however, was a desolate spiritual crisis: “It was at this point I realised that I had to think about blindness because if I didn’t understand it, it would defeat me.” His reflections in his audio diary – which became the basis for a book, Touching The Rock, and now this documentary – chart his progress from deep despair to an eventual sense of transfiguration.

One might imagine that a film about blindness would heavily test the ingenuity of film-makers and the limits of the audience. Yet what emerges is an absorbing and moving exploration of the nature of sight, a sense that most of us use constantly but rarely contemplate. The directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney have employed actors to lip sync the recordings Hull made of himself and his family: the results have a dreamy but powerful cinematic quality, reminiscent at times of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

This is a dispatch from the frontline of blindness, but also of domestic life: Hull’s own descriptions – often forced to bypass visual imagery – attain an unusually intimate poetry. The soundtrack includes the voices of his wife, Marilyn, and children one Christmas, with Marilyn struggling to keep festive joy afloat as Hull feels the blackness of blindness sucking him under: “I had a desperate feeling of being enclosed, of having to get out.”

Later, solutions begin to provide their own satisfactions. Hull – who died last year – talks of walking his small son to school and their tender parting game, which takes account of the fact that the common ritual of goodbye waves is useless to them: “He shouts out ‘Bye’. And I shout ‘Bye’. And we keep up this echoing chorus until his voice becomes faint. I love this.”

By concentrating on the other senses, Hull’s observations drive home the familiar in fresh ways. Perhaps the most beautiful scene comes when he records “A note on the experience of hearing rain falling”, conveying with great pleasure how the intricate patter of raindrops on separate surfaces creates “a blanket of differentiated and specialised sound”. After listening to it through Hull’s ears, you will never hear rain in the same way again.