Notes On Blindness is now out on Blu-ray and you might be thinking… hang on, didn’t that come out last year?
Well, yes and no – yes on DVD only, as while it rightly had critical acclaim as a film, no-one at Artificial Eye had the confidence to release the film on Blu-ray, too. Thankfully, that is now corrected.
It’s good to watch it a second time, and on this occasion, I saw it with the enhanced soundtrack which adds extra commentary from John, but note that the subtitles are formulated for the original soundtrack option, so they won’t include text for the additional spoken word, plus some of the original lines will be out of sync with the picture, as the whole soundtrack has been remastered. It’s quite impressive to effectively make TWO films in this way.
One thing I have also learned from this new release is that there’s a Virtual Reality experience, available through Android and iOS with Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear. I have a more robust version of the former so will check that out soon and report back.
Notes… is also the title of a compendium of C-90 audio cassette tapes recorded by Professor John Hull, portrayed here by Dan Skinner, who was a few years younger than the professor, so could be considered to be a bit too young for the part, but there are elements of artistic licence in that which you can overlook as he does a damn fine job, and as he states in the extras, he became a father for the first time while he was playing the role of Hull, who sires his first son, and is also his first child since he went blind.
The reason for the audio recordings were to help him to understand blindness in order to retain his humanity.
John Hull also passed away in 2015, so this film also serves as a fitting tribute to the man.
His story begins in 1980 when he started to slowly go completely blind and, since he wanted to continue his work, he struggled to obtain complex audio books on topics like anthropology and sociology, simply because all they catered for was detective novels and romantic fiction, and when he asked how blind people read complex books, he was told… “they don’t”. He brilliantly countered this by asking a number of people to record audio books for him on his chosen topics.
He comes across as very accepting of his fate, whereas I’d be screaming blue murder. He was a very religious man and never castigated God for this. I am not at all religious. Nothing could make me see sense in what happens to him, if that were to happen to me.
He said when his eyesight was fading, it felt like a good thing as it kept him fully occupied – something that left him once he could no longer see.
When completely blind, he likes the sound of rain falling as we don’t always fully appreciate the audio when we can also see at the same time. However, for myself, when I hear planes shooting overhead, that takes me back to when I first appreciated Dolby Digital sound and even just with 5.1 sound, the stereo separation around the speakers, and how it feels like that’s happening in reality.
The actors are shown mouthing the words of John and his wife, Marilyn (Simone Kirby), and it takes a while to get used to hearing the real John Hull’s voice being synchronised with Dan SKinner’s mouth movements, but you do get there, and you realise it’s much better than Skinner simply attempting the same accent. I wonder if this has ever been done before? I certainly don’t recall it being done.
At one point, he tells us that he’s losing memories of what his wife and family look like, as well as his early life in Australia, and it made me wonder which would be the least worst option – to lose one’s sight or hearing, if I had to choose. It’s a bad situation either way. However, I also wondered, if I was blind, would I actively keep my eyelids shut? It feels more effort to do so than to leave them open, even though he can’t see. In addition, it’s interesting he still wears his glasses, despite not requiring them.
First time round, I wasn’t sure if this film worked 100% for me, but that it was fascinating and captivating to watch for the subject, for how much research would’ve gone into this, and for Dan Skinner’s performance. Now, it certainly felt more rewarding second time round, and I think it’s a film that definitely deserves further viewings.
As for Mr Skinner, to me, he’s made quite a turnaround from the character of Angelos Epithemiou who I couldn’t stand. I’ve since seen him in The Kennedys and High-Rise, and I know he’s made a number of other films and TV shows, so he clearly has many strings to his bow. It also makes me want to learn more about John Hull, himself.
The film is presented in the original theatrical 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio and in 1080p high definition, and all the ‘not-quite-dream-style’ sequences are allowed to be glorious now it’s on Blu-ray. Even a 4K release would be nice, but those are still relatively few and far between just now. However, it was one of the most talked-about movies of 2016, and also for one that was filmed in 6K resolution.
For the aural sense, on DVD, there was superb audio (all in Dolby Digital 5.1) in dream-style sequences, one set inside his house but with rain falling. At first, I thought this was a fantasy sequence, but later realised it’s how he interprets the world, such as when the rain is apparently bearing down on the inside of his house?
On Blu-ray, the audio is much richer on this disc, the bass reverberating around the room when – as the subtitles state – you’re hearing “otherworldly music”. It really is the right format on which to see it.
Compared to the DVD edition, this Blu-ray contains one major extra extra, Radio H. In full, the extras are:
- Radio H (14:06): Clips from the film (cropped to 4:3 for reasons I couldn’t figure out) with narration from present-day Imogen talking about her father, with great fondness, including how while she was at school in Poole, and while he still lived in Birmingham, he took a 4-5-hour train ride to pick her up from school, take her home, and then get the train back again.
There’s also more audio-recording footage not heard in the film.
- Introduction to soundtrack options (2:57): Not sure why it needs two different people to voice slightly different audio descriptive tracks. However, this shows how the enhanced soundtrack can give extra background narration from John Hull, himself, as to his situation.
- Notes on Notes On Blindness (2:11): A few comments about the film and John Hull, by directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney.
- Directing as a team (1:12): It’s very rare that a film has two directors, and usually it’s a bad sign if it’s not an animated movie with so much going on, but it worked for this one. Dan Skinner describes them as two halves of one whole.
- Lip synching (3:27): No live audio was recorded on set, and they had to play the tapes on-set so the actor mirror them.
- John and Marilyn (2:18): Talking about structure John’s audio recording into a narrative, and with Marilyn consulting on set. I found it strange that there was only 16 hours of audio recordings, when after all the years he made them, I assumed there were many more.
- Audio description tracks: One apiece from Louise Fryer and Stephen Mangan. While the ‘enhanced soundtrack’ option includes spoken captions as they appear, these are full audio description. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a film given TWO, and on briefly checking the opening, both appear to use exactly the same script. Why two? I don’t know, but perhaps it’s to give the viewer the choice of a male or female voice.
- Bonus DVD: The film again, but with a ‘creative subtitled’ version enclosed. Subtitles are hardcoded onto the disc and don’t always appear in the same place, as they appear close to the person speaking, on checking the opening. It’s interesting, but I’m sure this version could’ve been included in HD on the Blu-ray. It also has the same 12 chapters as the Blu-ray.
The menu subtly mixes clips from the film with some of the score’s incidental music. There’s a bog standard 12 chapters, and subtitles are in English.
Running time: 87 minutes
Released: April 24th 2017
Widescreen: 2.35:1 (Redcode RAW (6K))
Sound: DTS HD-MA 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Disc Format: BD50
Directors: Peter Middleton and James Spinney
Producers: Mike Brett, Jo Jo Ellison, Peter Middleton, James Spinney and Alex Usborne
Screenplay: Peter Middleton and James Spinney
Music: James Ewers and Noah Wood
John Hull: Dan Skinner
Marilyn Hull: Simone Kirby
Himself (voice): John M Hull
Herself (voice): Marilyn Hull
Imogen: Miranda Beinart-Smith
Madge Hull: Eileen Davies
Lizzie: Mahalia Martin-Jones
Thomas: Sidney Nicholas Warbrick and Stanley John Warbrick
Young Imogen Hull: Lorelei Winterfrost
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.