Pros: Touching love story, beautiful cinematography
Cons: Runs a bit long, some unnecessary side plots, lack of extras
“At First Sight” is based on the true story of a man who was blind for nearly his entire life due to cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa before having his sight temporarily restored. Based on an essay by British neurologist Oliver Sacks (who also penned Awakenings), the film follows stressed-out New York architect Amy (Mira Sorvino) as she attempts to “relax” at a weekend spa retreat. At the reception desk, she frowns at the list of activities and settles on daily massages instead. At her first session, she meets Virgil (Val Kilmer), a man with a truly magic touch. To her embarrassment, Amy breaks down crying as someone actually takes the time to touch her for the first time in a long time. Virgil, blind since childhood, excels as a massage therapist and enjoys hockey. Sensitive, constantly smiling and outgoing, he doesn’t view blindness as a disability. Amy and Virgil begin seeing each other, but his prickly, overprotective sister Jennie keeps reminding her of Virgil’s limitations as a blind man.
When Amy returns to New York and finds a doctor that is a pioneer in restoring vision, she urges Virgil to consider having the operation. This is the start of a very honest and painful dialog between Virgil, Jennie, and Amy; as a child, Virgil was subjected to every manner of faith healing in an attempt to cure his blindness. The remainder of the film deals with the aftermath of the surgery and the strain that Virgil’s newfound sight places on his and Amy’s relationship. After being blind for decades, Virgil’s brain is unable to cope with the new flood of visual input, and he is only able to “see” by touch for the first few days. It’s a refreshing twist on Hollywood portrayals of narrators succumbing to blindness and the sentiment of “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Instead, director Irwin Winkler and the gorgeous cinematography by John Seale paint Virgil’s world of darkness in terms of touch, sound (the gorgeous rainstorm that allows Virgil to “see” Amy puts Daredevil’s CGI rain effect to shame!!) and smell (Virgil initially describes Amy as smelling like cinnamon and vanilla, to which his sister says it sounds like he’s describing a coffeecake). His post-op world is one of blurry, super-saturated colors, sudden movements, and confusion, and similar to Asperger’s Syndrome, Virgil has to learn to “read” facial expressions and visual cues.
Winkler deftly balances the romantic story with the medical one, although the film feels a touch long and could have benefited from some editing (I wasn’t crazy about Nathan Lane’s cameo, although I love him in other films such as ). Kilmer handles pre- and post-op Val with tenderness and insight; as a blind man, he relies on his other senses like touch and hearing to guide him, but sight proves more treacherous and difficult than living in a familiar world of darkness. Sorvino’s Amy was sweet and supportive, although at times she has difficulty understanding why Virgil would choose his old life over his new one. The beautiful visual metaphors and the love theme by Diana Krall only add to the tender appeal of “At First Sight.”