A business commuter in a bustling, multi-cultural, multi-lingual modern city is struck blind while waiting for the traffic lights to turn green. A bystander offers to drive him home, stealing his car the minute he steps out of it. His wife hurries him to an eye specialist who is puzzled by the strangeness of his symptoms; he reports not an absence of light, but a dazzling excess. The next day sees the wife, the thief, the bystanders and the doctor’s other patients, even the doctor himself all similarly afflicted.
No solution can be found. Fearing an epidemic the authorities quickly quarantine the sufferers within an abandoned hospital building, cutting them off from the rest of the world. Food and a few basic supplies are grudgingly provided by armed soldiers and anyone straying towards the boundaries of their prison risks a conclusive response; yet more cases occur, and more victims are poured into this ever deteriorating environment.
The only sighted person willing to interact with them is the doctor’s wife, first feigning blindness herself to avoid being separated from him, then hiding the truth from the other sufferers once they are confined. The burden falls on her to ease the pain she sees all around and, making the best of the situation, she tries to maintain the humanity of those in need; but, treated like animals by the society outside, those within begin to shuck off the niceties of civilisation as the darker side of mankind comes to light.
Based on a book I haven’t read by José Saramago, Blindness is an unusual movie. It has a very noticeable atmosphere: framed in this mundanely fantastic, magic realism scenario, it observes the emotionally charged erosion of human values with a kind of impartial documentary eye, producing what sometimes feels like understated melodrama, sometimes like oppressive nightmare. Part of this atmosphere comes from the realisation of the nameless cityscape this all takes place in. Filmed in Canada, Uruguay and Brazil, it manages to seem familiar without being obviously one real place pressed into service (New York left unnamed is still New York, for example, there’s no escaping it). Combined with the casual inclusion of characters from many different cultural backgrounds, the world presented becomes a highly convincing caricature of modern urban society. The suspension of one’s disbelief regarding the unlikely crisis is thus made easier by its being framed in an authentic yet (un)recognisably imaginary world.
With a crush of faces kept in close confinement Blindness feels more like an ensemble piece than it really is, but the generally subdued performances are all sound. Leading the good most recognisably are Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo as the sighted wife and her doctor husband and both do well without being outstanding; while amidst their supporting crowd Danny Glover provides a sightly saccharine undertone, also being charged with the brief but inevitable – this is literature adapted, after all – pieces of narration. The forces of evil prove more flamboyant, even excessively so, with Gael García Bernal and Maury Chaykin rather chewing the scenery as they lead the descent of the decent into savagery – but then savages are rarely restrained.
In the heroes’ struggle for degrees of justice and freedom the story eventually seems to chose the most crowd-pleasing paths; and while the denouement rewards us with a jolly good heartwarming, we are left with the question not just of will a lesson be learnt, but of exactly what lesson we were learning in the first place. Overall, Blindness proves itself better than merely okay, but falls short of greatness – perhaps because this is material more effectively explored in words than in pictures.