Keeping Us All in the Dark

The faultlines in the plot of Blindness, a new movie adaptation of a classic novel, make it somewhat absurd

Peter Whittle

There are hundreds of classic films which could not now be remade because of the existence of the mobile phone. The plot of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, for example, hinged on the making of a landline call to a phone in a particular room at a particular time in the evening. If she’d had a mobile, Grace Kelly wouldn’t have had to go to the kitchen to answer the phone, there would have been no murder attempt and hence no film. The absurdity of ignoring this was illustrated by the remake of that movie, A Perfect Murder, 10 years ago. We were asked to believe that the Gwyneth Paltrow character, living in the lap of Fifth Avenue luxury, had to get out of her marble bath and walk half a mile to the other side of the apartment to keep her particular appointment with fate. That small implausibility showed the whole story up as a fraud.

This kept running through my mind as I watched Blindness, the new screen adaptation of the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago about a mysterious epidemic of “white blindness” that descends out of nowhere on to an unidentified, racially diverse but obviously Western city. The particular group of victims on which the story centres is quarantined by an apparently authoritarian regime in what looks like a disused asylum; yet as they fall over chairs and form motley conga-lines in the search for food, it doesn’t seem to occur to any of them that they might pick up the phones they would surely have owned to find out what was happening on the outside. In a film set in the here and now, this seems a very odd, not to say convenient, omission. And before it is pointed out to me in angry emails that, well, these people wouldn’t actually be able to see anyway, I’d say that the key-panel of your average mobile is actually very close to Braille, and with a tiny bit of practice could easily be mastered.

It will be obvious from this that my mind had time to wander throughout the two hours. It’s a bad sign in the cinema when you start listing irritating implausibilities; and one imagines that it’s the last thing the director, Fernando Meirelles, expected for this new film, with its grainy, bleached-out art-house pretensions – his follow-up to The Constant Gardener. I suspect that he thought his film and its audience would be above such petty nit-picking. Blindness is, after all, meant to deal with big themes, such as the sudden disintegration of civilisation when we find ourselves rendered powerless. The novel, which I haven’t read, was widely praised for the way in which it dealt with the descent into a kind of savagery by otherwise ordinary urban dwellers, who then belatedly discover their shared humanity. Unfortunately, the inertness, worthiness and sheer grimness of this adaptation expose the fault-lines that eventually cause the whole thing to appear rather silly.

At the film’s centre is one woman (played by Julianne Moore) who remains unaffected by the plague. Why, we are never told. She keeps her sightedness a secret from the rest of the group, whose relationships with each other are at the best abrasive, so as to be able to stay with her husband (Mark Ruffalo). A feud breaks out with a bunch of degenerates in another part of the building who, guns at the ready, trade food for sex. Everybody is demeaned. Finally, the woman leads a small group out of their prison and across the city to her abandoned home; they form a kind of alternative family.

This is all very uplifting, but why does she wait so long before doing anything? She endures all sorts of indignities, but for no good reason. In the kingdom of the blind she could have been queen, and yet for far too long she holds back and it is only mayhem which forces her to act. I imagine that her tentativeness is treated with much more subtlety in the book, but this is a film and we are not so privy to inner worlds. The behaviour of the central character strikes us as weak if not nonsensical. When Hollywood producers want “Complex” and “Damaged” in a leading lady, they reach first for Julianne Moore. She is dependably good at that here, but under Meirelles’s direction she becomes simply a drag on the action.

None of this is to say that the film is devoid of subtext. At times, as figures lurch along deserted wards or slump naked on filthy beds, it feels like a zombie movie with a touch of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As in that film, there’s a predictable sense of the blindness representing some form of oppression by authority. A nameless announcer voices warnings and commands from a TV screen; guards patrol the “inmates” from ramparts (although why there is the need for quarantine, when everybody in the city is in the same boat is also never explained). People are kept, literally, in the dark.

Above all, one is left with the sense that there is something not very original about all of this. There’s a conflict at the heart of it: we may learn to see each other anew when the constraints, pressures and conventions of everyday society are removed; and yet the film seems at the same time to be saying that, without these constraints, human beings descend into squalor and selfishness very quickly indeed. In any case, if the final message is simply “only connect”, it would be nice not to have to endure such relentless bleakness for two hours before hearing it.

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