Who are we kidding? I’m blind. I can’t see see. I don’t belong here. I’m not meant to see.
Year Released : 1999
Director :Irwin Winkler
Cast : Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Kelly McGillis, Steven Weber and Nathan Lane
I’ve mentioned in a few previous reviews that my favourite film is the 1988 adventure film “Willow”, for me it is everything a film should be. It’s got everything you could want, action, adventure, comedy, romance, a bit of science fiction and an ounce of horror, but one of the main highlights is the performance of Val Kilmer, who stood out in the film and oozed charisma, and since first seeing “Willow” at the cinema when I was four years old, I have been a big fan of his. Although his choice of films since the turn of the century has been questionable, not helped by that he seems to take any job going, back in the late 1980s and the 1990s he was involved in some excellent films, including “At First Sight”.
The film focuses on the relationship between a New York architect and a blind man that she meets whilst on vacation and touches on some very interesting points that you would never even consider if you were in the same situation and whilst it has it’s flaws, “At First Sight” is arguably one of the most intelligent romantic films I’ve seen in a while. Yes, I said romantic, which is a new category for me on here.
Amy (Sorvino) is a busy architect who, after some convincing, decides to take a break from work and go on a much needed vacation. Whilst there she meets Virgil (Kilmer), a masseuse and following a rather interesting conversation whilst he was giving her the massage, Amy decides she wants to get to know Virgil more but is then shocked to realise that he is blind.
The two become romantically involved and Virgin eventually agrees to move to New York to be with her, much to the general distaste to Jennie (McGillis), Virgil’s sister, who thinks that he will never adapt to life outside of his quiet town. She is even less pleased when she finds out that Amy has convinced Virgil to have an operation to restore his sight.
Virgil undergoes the operation but struggles to adapt to his surroundings, putting a heavy strain on the relationship with Amy.
So….what makes it intelligent?
The thing that always struck me about this film as being intelligent was that in a lot of films where a blind person suddenly has their sight restored, there is no learning curve, they’re just able to adapt almost seamlessly, but that doesn’t happen here. Virgil, who has been blind since early childhood, often doesn’t know what he’s looking at. One such example comes just after his operation, he goes to look for a job but ultimately is left frustrated because he is unable to complete the application forms as he can’t read non-braille forms.
It’s things like that, the things that most films don’t take into account, that adds a level of intelligence and realism to the film. A person who has spent virtually their entire life blind won’t know how to read and on that basis would really struggle to adapt. You genuinely empathise with him because realistically he has no chance. He’s effectively reverted back to being a small child and having to rely on others more than ever, whereas when he was blind he was not only happy, but was able to lead a life without many complications.
In many ways Jennie turned out to be right and ultimately on reflection, Amy’s motives, whilst selfless on the surface, are actually done to make everything to her liking. Even after Virgil says that he doesn’t want to go through the surgery, she still persists and he ends up doing something that he ultimately regrets.
You can actually feel Virgil’s conflicts both before and after having the surgery done and that is in no small part down to Kilmer, who does an excellent job in portraying a blind man with a generally happy demeanor, and it’s almost ironic in a way that his performance is made more believable by his eye-acting. A lot of blind people that I know/have seen tend to still move their eyes when talking, and Kilmer has borrowed that element excellently. Whilst it may not have the tour-de-force feel from his performance in “Willow” or his bravado of “Top Gun”, I would go as far as saying that in terms of pure acting, this is arguably one of Kilmer’s better performances on screen.
McGillis also does a great job as Jennie as, much like Virgil, she is internally conflicted as she wants Virgil to be happy, but is uncomfortable with him taking the risk of having surgery to see again, especially as there was no guarantee it was going to work anyway.
The relationship between Jennie and Virgil is very well played out and I think you genuinely believe the bond is real because of the choice of the writers to make all the characters either in middle-age, or rapidly approaching it. There are no characters, other than one or two via minor ones, under the age of 35 (or at least around that age) in the film, so you don’t have any of the usual issues that plague romantic films where there is just too much angst from a younger cast in similar films.
“At First Sight” is one of the few romantic films I like because it doesn’t follow the usual format of romantic films. Think of a few romantic comedies you’ve seen recently and you’ll realise that the below formula happens…..
Step 1) The two people meet
Step 2) They fall in love
Step 3) At least one of them has already done something, or does something bad.
Step 4) The other person finds out about it and the two have a massive fight and split up.
Step 5) They eventually get past what split them up and end up together anyway.
Those five steps are the formula to pretty much every romantic comedy ever. I challenge any of you to come up with at least five well known films that don’t follow that formula. It’s one of the reasons I have a serious dislike to the genre, but this is different, perhaps it’s because it’s not a romantic comedy, or maybe because it’s more realistic.
When couples have a fight about something big, the chances are that they won’t get back together. That’s why movies are so ridiculous when that follow the format because if you found out that your partner only got with you because of a bet (She’s All That), they were paid to (My Best Friend’s Girl), you were writing a magazine article (10 Things I Hate About You)…..I could go on.
Anyway, my point is that it’s very rare that you will find yourself watching a romantic theme (either drama or comedy, or on one occasion I saw, a romantic horror….that was strange) and don’t see that formula, and whilst “At First Sight” does still borrow some elements of those five steps, it’s not all of them.
There are however a few negatives from the film. At over two hours long it does have a lot of filler in there. There is a lot of enjoyable elements to the film, but there are also a lot of parts where you think to yourself that they could have done without that.
I also found it very difficult to get behind Amy because I don’t think she was portrayed particularly well by Sorvino. I’ve seen her in three films (this, “Mimic” and “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” (I can’t believe I’ve just admitted I’ve seen that)) and to be honest I haven’t really liked her in any of them. She is a very good romantic lead in the sense that she definitely has that “girl next door” vibe her, but she doesn’t bring enough charisma to the screen for me to become emotionally invested in her as an actress.
Having said that it’s not unusual for the female lead in a romantic film to be portrayed by actresses that can’t act. Kirsten Stewart, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Scarlett Johannson, Katherine fucking Heigl….again I could go on. If I must for some reason watch a romantic film then I least want both of the leads to be played by people who can actually act, have charisma, or to a lesser extent, be reasonably attractive…..all on that mini-list lack at least one of those, one lacks all three.
Anyway, I’m going to leave it there otherwise I will end up properly ranting about it. If I were you, I wouldn’t expect too many romantic theme reviews on this site.
It’s save to say that I am not a fan of romantic films at all. It’s a very tired genre with very few films standing out from the rest, but unlike most films in the genre, “At First Sight” is a very enjoyable, if somewhat over-stretched film that actually has a lot of intelligent points to make about the difficulties that blind people face.
Val Kilmer does a good job portraying Virgil in one of the final roles he had before his career started going a bit downhill (believe me, I’ve seen some of the films he’s done over the past ten years and they are shocking. I’m not saying that he was, but the film was) and it brought to end an excellent 90s for the former Batman star.
I would definitely recommend this film for a Friday night in with your other half.