At First Sight

(Irwin Winkler, USA, 1998)


At First Sight approaches its main topic obliquely. Early images of Virgil (Val Kilmer) show him at rest and play in a beautiful, snow-filled wilderness – but, occasionally and ominously, the world darkens around him. When architect Amy (Mira Sorvino) enters Virgil’s cosy massage studio, her experience of him is solely through his deep, rich voice and magic, healing hands.

Amy will soon learn the simple truth that Virgil is blind, and has been so since early childhood. Later, when Amy learns that revolutionary new surgery is available, she convinces Virgil to take a bold step toward the recovery of his sight. Naturally, the process is not without some unforeseen complications.

At First Sight, based on a case study reported by Oliver Sacks, does not follow the template laid down by such films as Charly (1968) and Awakenings (1990). Here, Virgil does not necessarily experience sight as a life-enhancing miracle, or a blessed release from a miserable lifetime in darkness.

On the contrary, Virgil manages his blindness in a relatively comfortable way. It is vision which is hellish for him, because his brain cannot easily process the information relating to shape, size, direction, colour and perspective. The film scarcely tries to picture what a world seen like this must be like, but Kilmer makes us appreciate Virgil’s intense pain and disorientation.

Beyond these medical issues, At First Sight is a relatively simple love story about a clash of opposites – stressed-out city-slicker meets laid-back country boy, both of whom must struggle to find a middle ground. The story strands of love and vision coincide in an unsettling scene where, at a party, Virgil sees – but does not know how to read – the kiss given to Amy by her ex-husband (Steven Weber).

The film tries to cram in too much. The rough, folk wisdom handed out by Virgil’s chummy medical consultant (Nathan Lane) recalls the gooier bits of Good Will Hunting (1997). Certain issues crucial to the story – such as Amy and Virgil’s sex life, and his new career as masseur in the big, bad city – are skimmed over. A sub-plot involving Virgil’s long-absent father is misjudged, but at least his grumpy sister makes an impression, thanks to Kelly McGillis’ fine performance.

Irwin Winkler (Night and the City [1992],The Net [1995]) is among my least favourite American directors, but At First Sight is his most creditable and restrained work to date. Typical Winklerisms, however, intrude – such as the ham-fisted attempt at token social comment, when Virgil gives an impromptu speech on the need for us all to “really see” the homeless in the streets.

MORE Winkler: De-Lovely

© Adrian Martin April 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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