An adaptation of a novel by José Saramago, directed by City of God’s Fernando Meirelles – the premise of Blindness is promising enough.
In an unnamed US city, a Japanese man is struck suddenly blind whilst driving. Helped home by a thief masquerading as a good Samaritan, the man’s wife takes him to the doctor (Mark Ruffalo). Soon, thief, wife, doctor and anyone they have come into contact with are all afflicted by the same mysterious disease which reduces their sight to a milky blankness.
For much of the film we spend time in a make-shift quarantine unit with these people – all blind except for the ophthalmologist’s wife (Julianne Moore) who sneaked into the unit and keeps her sight a secret. Neglected by the authorities as outside (we later learn) the outbreak leads to widespread panic, vehicular chaos and the breakdown of social order, inside the afflicted are quickly reduced to feral gangs, fighting for survival by trading belongings – and eventually their women – for food.
It’s an intriguing, but not unfamiliar scenario – a very similar thing happens in the opening chapters of John Wyndham’s brilliant sci fi classic The Day of the Triffids – and the idea has plenty of scope for gripping drama. Except that Blindness, sticking to its allegorical source material, eschews the expected thriller/sci fi route to tread a more arty and unexpected path.
This is evident from the look of the film, with washed out colours and vacant scenes employed to symbolise the blinds’ experience. Noise is used effectively, too, with the film opening to a cacophony of car horns and coffee pots shown to bubble noisily.
None of this is unpredictable, though, and while pretty, it’s not immensely striking. And if the bleached out cinematography adds a realistically turgid quality to the increasingly squalid conditions of the wards, the film itself lacks credulity.
Because, when it comes to making the most of a film about a society debilitated by a freak disease, this deliberately non-Hollywood direction is not one which pays off. Despite the many chances a story like this has for impact, it sucker punches every time, causing the whole thing to come across not as a powerful morality tale, but as a fragmented and irritating mess.
In a bid not to tread the obvious route, the film becomes annoyingly vague: Why is the doctor’s wife the only one who can see? What is going on in their awkward relationship? Why did they all go blind? Incarcerated and left almost for dead, the motivations and reactions of the group don’t ring true, either, as they adapt to their horrific surroundings with barely a murmur.
Eschewing Hollywood gloss is one thing, but that, in itself, does not make an intelligent film. Arty shots and metaphors aside, the film’s attempts to explore themes of disability, racism, self preservation and love either come to nothing or are clumsily handled – as morality-by-numbers as any piece of Hollywood schlock.
The cast do their best – Julianne Moore makes a good stab at playing the only sighted person responsible for a ward full of the blind, but even she can’t make a convincing case for her character’s irrational failure to save her group from their increasingly horrific predicament.
Ruffalo has a sort of offbeat charm but his character seemed better suited to a Woody Allen movie, and Danny Glover’s eye-patched good guy, who suddenly begins a portentous narration halfway through the film, is a cloying inclusion. Gael García Bernal, though, is convincingly repellent as the self declared King of Ward Three.
There are a couple of really visually interesting, symbolic moments in this film but these instances – such as when the women return from being prostituted to embark upon a sort of tribal, almost biblical cleansing – are lost amongst the general lack of clarity. The preceding scene – shockingly brutal – also felt unnecessary, not only because of its incredible violence but also because of the basic implausibility of the group’s decision to send their women to be raped when Moore’s character could easily have sneaked in and simply stolen the food boxes.
Thoughtful, allegorical films are no bad thing at all, but they still require a core of entertainment to link the ideas together. Ultimately, this film leaves one feeling dissatisfied, and thinking that this is one story which might have been better suited to the sort of slick, gripping drama that Meirelles, sadly, seemed so keen to avoid.
Blindness (18) is out now.