At First Sight (1999)
A Feely Touchy Romantic Tale
Limbo is like New Jersey. You can see all the good stuff, you just have to get there - Phil Websiter
Before sitting down to watch "At First Sight" I was unfortunate enough to read some reviews which basically slapped it down for being overly romantic mush. And in a way those reviewers were sort of right as "At First Sight" is a love story between a young woman and a blind man who decides to have an operation to restore the sight he lost as a 3 year old. It's pleasant enough as a love story, not overly memorable but nice. But what is a shame is that whilst "At First Sight" highlights the turmoil and confusion of a blind person suddenly being able to see as well as the effect on those around the focus on the love story dilutes this fascinating side of the movie.
Whilst taking a short break at a health spa, Manhattan architect, Amy (Mira Sorvino - Romy and Michele's High School Reunion) meets and falls for Virgil (Val Kilmer - The Saint) the Spa's masseur who has been blind since the age of 3. Despite objections from Virgil's protective sister Jennie (Kelly McGillis - Ground Control), their love blossoms and when Amy discovers that there is an operation which could restore Virgil's sight he agrees to have it. But having got his sight back life is not as easy as anyone expected as Virgil is forced to learn everything again putting strain on his relationship with Amy.
Interestingly "At First Sight" is based on a true story and the side of the movie which focuses on the experiences of Virgil as he gets his sight back feels as such. We watch as Virgil battles his inner turmoil over having yet another painful operation which is not guaranteed to work and as such dealing with the fear of more disappointment. But we also watch how confusing it is to suddenly get sight back after living most of your life with out it. The scene where the bandages are removed and everything is blurred is such a powerful scene especially when it becomes apparent that a simple thing like a can of coke means nothing to Virgil unless he can touch it and then associate what he is seeing with what he knows through touch.
It's this side of "At First Sight" which works so well showing us firstly what it's like to be blind, the routines, the pace counting, the knowing where everything is and so on. And then showing us the emotional stress of having to learn to see in an adult world. It opens your eyes and makes you realise that for someone who has been blind for all their life, that the possibility to have sight is not an easy choice. And quite cleverly it allows us to realise that there are different levels of normality, for those with sight then seeing is normal but for those who can't see then that is normal.
And at the same time as showing the turmoil faced by Virgil choosing to have his sight restored it also highlights the turmoil of those nearest to him, his sister Jennie who has spent her life as his carer. Kelly McGillis who plays Jennie does a wonderful job as whilst her harshness towards the relationship between Virgil and Amy as well as Virgil's decision to have the operation can be misconstrued as downright nasty it actually demonstrates her own insecurities, that what was her life, a life dedicated to her brother would be over if he was able to move on.
But here's the problem, whilst all of this is fascinating as it allows us to experience what it must be like emotionally for Virgil to see for the first time, it ends up rather diluted as the love story takes centre stage. Now the love story is nice, and you get to see how Virgil getting his sight back is not what either he or Amy expected but it just isn't overly memorable and shouldn't have ended up the main focus. There are no really great romantic scenes; even a sex scene is tame as it is artistically shot to get a lower rating. And this means that rather than being a really insightful movie about blindness, "At First Sight" ends up a rather mushy, pleasant enough love story with some insightful moments.
Despite this you have to say that the pairing of Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino works. There are times during "At First Sight" that Kilmer shows what a good actor he is especially in the scene where he sees for the first time going through the emotions of fear, relief, happiness and confusion as he struggles to adjust to seeing. And at the same time you get a sense of the happiness he had, the normality of his life before hand when he couldn't see. But whilst there are moments of brilliance from Kilmer there are elements to his performance which spoil things most notably when he is trying to act blind. He's convincing but it almost feels that whilst researching the character he has tried to combine all the mannerisms and tricks he picked up from other blind people and makes the character a little over the top.
Mira Sorvino has an easier job as for the most she has to be cute, loving and caring which she pulls off perfectly. But at the same time when Virgil's sight is restored she manages to deliver the turmoil of how confusing it is for her just perfectly. You really get a sense that she didn't realise that Virgil would basically have to learn to see again and so we see the impact that this has. And as already mention Kelly McGillis also gives a strong performance as Virgil's sister.
What this all boils down to is that "At First Sight" is a good movie and the insight it gives into the life of a blind person and the turmoil that getting sight back can cause is fascinating. But unfortunately the fascinating side of the movie is watered down by a love story which seems all a little too safe, failing to deliver any really great romantic moments which stay with you. If only the focus has remained on the turmoil over seeing again and "At First Sight" would have been more than just a good movie.
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