Friday January 15, 1999
"At First Sight," an exceptionally touching and provocative love story, gets underway swiftly. Mira Sorvino's stressed-out Manhattan architect Amy Benic heads for an Adirondacks resort and signs up for a massage from Val Kilmer's Virgil, whose touch is so relaxing and tender it reduces her to tears. Since Virgil is also handsome, the lovely Amy is not surprisingly attracted to him. But she is shocked to discover that he's blind.
A romance blossoms, but when Amy comes across an article about an eminent Manhattan ophthalmologist (Bruce Davison) and his breakthrough treatment of blindness tucked away in Virgil's scrapbook she takes matters in her own hands. Soon Davison's Dr. Aaron has restored Virgil's sight, which had faded by the time he was 3 from a combination of severe cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa.
Director Irwin Winkler and writer Steve Levitt, in adapting Oliver Sacks' New Yorker story "To See or Not to See"--Sacks' work also provided the basis for the 1990 film "Awakenings"--have now reached the heart of the matter: Virgil now has sight but he has to learn to see. The psychological and emotional validity with which Virgil's predicament is imagined and developed is wrenchingly persuasive.
(Those of us who have had the parallel experience of a parent who acquired near-normal hearing through surgery in middle age know that the capacity to hear does not automatically confer the ability to listen. You learn that a suddenly acquired sense, if it is not developed consciously, can perversely seem to have the potential to do more harm than good in various and unanticipated ways, as incredible as that may seem.)
To its credit "At First Sight" deals with all these challenges and more that face Virgil, who moves in with Amy and hopes to continue his work as a masseur. The magnitude of the learning Virgil has to acquire is exemplified by the fact that he must associate all his knowledge of the physical world with his actual seeing of it--he must connect the taste and feel of an apple with what an apple looks like. He must learn to read people's faces with the same care with which he has listened to their voices all his life. He must learn to read and then remember what he's read, a task that threatens to overwhelm him.
What Virgil is experiencing of course impacts upon his relationship with Amy, its special dimension of sensitivity threatened by the reality that they are becoming increasingly a normal couple coping with the usual pressures of everyday life. Yet "At First Sight" digs even deeper as it progresses, raising the question of whether Amy ever dealt with the possibility of loving Virgil, of staying in a permanent relationship with him, had his surgery not succeeded.
"At First Sight," enveloped as it is in a most appealing love story, is about taking chances and responsibility, questioning values and priorities, and even more crucially, about acceptance and perception. Embodying the film's complex view of behavior is Virgil's older sister Jenny (Kelly McGillis), who has quietly sacrificed her life to caring for her brother in such a manner as to give him as much independence as he can handle.
Jenny, who remembers how at the age of eight Virgil was subjected to one doctor, healer and futile treatment after another, now feels threatened by the possibility of losing him. The strength of the film is that we get to know its key people in stages, the same way they get to know one another and themselves.
Inspired by a true story, "At First Sight" is a handsome, expertly crafted film with an understated Mark Isham score and an appropriate end title song, "Love Is Where You Are," with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. There are a couple of glitches in the script: For example, how did that article on Dr. Aaron turn up in Virgil's scrapbook? Was it passed on to him by his solicitous town librarian (Margo Winkler)? The whole character of Dr. Aaron, as well-played as he is by Davison, is somewhat problematical. Not only is he dizzyingly swift in having his institution underwrite the expenses of Virgil's surgery but also he seems oddly negligent in not having had Nathan Lane's dedicated and unorthodox visual therapist enlisted to help Virgil adjust from the start. There's a streak of opportunism in the doctor that might have been brought out to give an edge to a film determined to have no villains beyondVirgil's irresponsible father (Ken Howard).
"At First Sight," which marks 30 years of Winkler's work in Hollywood as a consistently creative filmmaker, is more than strong enough to overcome such quibbles, and it leaves you moved and impressed by the completeness of Kilmer's, Sorvino's and McGillis' portrayals. The way in which Virgil has been written, directed and portrayed is a singularly impressive feat of imagination and illumination.
At First Sight, 1999. PG-13, for scenes involving sexuality and nudity, and for brief strong language. An MGM presentation. Director Irwin Winkler. Producers Winkler and Rob Cowan. Screenplay by Steve Levitt; based on the story "To See or Not to See" by Oliver Sacks. Cinematographer John Seale. Editor Julie Monroe. Music Mark Isham. Production designer Jane Musky. Art director Robert Guerra. Set decorator Susan Bode. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Val Kilmer as Virgil Adamson. Mira Sorvino as Amy Benic. Kelly McGillis as Jennie Adamson. Steven Weber as Duncan Allanbrook.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times