Sundance 2017: Illness as Inspiration in “It’s Not Yet Dark”

17438-1-1100

Directed and Written by: Frankie Fenton
Narration by: Colin Farrell
Featuring: Simon Fitzmaurice, Ruth Fitzmaurice
Produced by: Kathryn Kennedy, Lesley McKimm
Music by: Stephen Rennicks
Cinematography by: Kate McCullough
Edited by: Dermot Diskin
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – World Documentary Competition

*****

“I am not dead yet, I can dance and I can sing
I am not dead yet, I can do the Highland Fling
I am not dead yet, no need to go to bed
No need to call the doctor ‘cause I’m not yet dead!”

-Spamalot

*****

If a tragedy is defined by its ending, then I must admit that for a week now, I’ve been at a loss trying to classify It’s Not Yet Dark. Based on a book by Simon Fitzmaurice, an Irish author and filmmaker with Motor Neuron Disease (MND), the new documentary had its International Premiere at the just-completed 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Alternating between life-affirming and world-weary, this debut feature from writer/director Frankie Fenton never settles on a tonal path, and therefore never finds closure. My suspicion is that Fenton and editor Dermot Diskin intended it that way, but now the critic’s job becomes difficult: I can’t tell you how you will feel if you see the film, because I have been intentionally led to a crossroads myself.

17438-2-1100

That’s not to say that the filmmakers are emotionally oblique; on the contrary, Fitzmaurice is such a willful, open man that his misery and joy loop around one another in a steel-strong helix. This duality girds the film’s backbone from the very beginning, as we’re introduced to the mobile, talkative, charming Simon and his wife, Ruth. In a brief first act, Diskin intercuts between home videos, family photographs, and news footage from their early life together as professional creatives. We see their happiness, and we hear of their love, through Colin Farrell’s particularly brogue-heavy narration (Colm Meaney must have been unavailable).

Then comes illness. The particulars of Simon’s symptoms are not mine to divulge, nor is his psychological state mine to evaluate. It is enough to say that he was supposed to die soon after his diagnosis (discovered, his wife chuckles, due to a “floppy foot”), and that he did not. Instead, the Irish government helped him acquire an eye-operated machine from which he speaks, writes, and ultimately directs a feature film, My Name is Emily. Is it at all significant if this inspired busy-body is unable to walk? Fenton demonstrates that it does not matter, rendering Fitzmaurice’s inner life so vividly through Farrell and the archival footage that his paralysis becomes like someone’s facial freckles: bothersome on first sight, maybe, but you cannot change them. At a certain point, you just see another face.

Like the team behind last year’s Sundance hit Gleason, Fenton smartly skips a lecture on MND (also known as ALS), pushing Fitzmaurice to prioritize his emotional state over the physical through lyrical writing. This is merciful: eliding the dirty details doesn’t come off as cowardice or pathological avoidance because, in the age of the Internet, we already know them. At the film’s festival screenings – or in Fenton’s and Fitzmaurice’s native Ireland, where it has been met with significant national accolades – the adult audiences have undoubtedly seen far worse than an infirm man’s nursing care. We all defecate, masturbate, and fornicate, the last of which becomes essential to the narrative when Ruth and Simon decide to have children again after his diagnosis. By the time of his fourth and fifth children’s births, Simon has become an award-winning feature filmmaker, a best-selling author, and the subject of an independent documentary.

17438-5-1100

17438-3-1100

With so much to explore, no one – not Ruth, not Fenton, and not producers Kathryn Kennedy and Lesley McKimm (who also produced My Name is Emily) – thought to linger on the affected corporeal body. If the film, beautiful as it is (Kate McCullough’s cinematography was awarded Galway Film Fleadh’s Best Cinematography in an Irish Feature) is to be faulted, it is for this: we are never allowed into the reality of physical degradation, especially not by Simon, who employs purple prose to describe his condition rather approach than it head-on. Farrell’s vocal interpretation is not existential, exactly, but it lingers and lilts on the words, as if he was reading passages from Fitzmaurice’s book as a bedtime story. It is soft, appealing, almost precious narration – the opposite tone of voice you might expect from someone detailing his own descent into quadriplegia.

Absent from Fenton’s light touch is the weight of fatalistic dread so present in Ruth and Simon. Now, before you respond telling me that illness does not necessarily make someone forsake themselves, I agree that not every film about a person with neurodegeneration needs to feel as oppressive as listening to “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”. But Simon’s story is almost too uplifting in the filmmakers’ hands, streamlined emotionally to fit the Sundance emotion model: a happy life is disrupted, pain and suffering ensue briefly, but affirmation and inspiration win out.

It’s entirely possible that the film’s trajectory accurately represents the discovery of great pleasure in tragic pain, and Fenton’s goal was simply to reflect that. In that sense, It’s Not Yet Dark is a towering success of visualization, giving voice to images and memories that occupy an incapacitated man’s mind. No doubt his family is grateful for the beauty of their complicated but workable life, which seems to have slashed away at the inevitability of their father/husband’s early death. Even I, a complete stranger and agnostic, consider the tale somewhat miraculous. Yet the circumstances of Simon Fitzmaurice’s life have a lustrous polish that, in the increasingly upsetting and frightening modern world, seem outrageously fantastical. If I were Colin Farrell, I would be screaming, not whispering.

not-dark-yet-poster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s