Sundance Film Review: ‘It’s Not Yet Dark’

The inspiring documentary of Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice's refusal to let the limitations Lou Gehrig's disease stanch his creativity.

Simon Fitzmaurice, Ruth Fitzmaurice, Damien Fitzmaurice, Florence Fitzmaurice, Kate Fitzmaurice, Phil McDarby, Hector Minto.

The very definition of a documentary crowd-pleaser, “It’s Not Yet Dark” provides an appropriately poignant and upbeat account of Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice’s inspiring triumph over physical limitations. Diagnosed more than a decade ago with Motor Neuron Disease, and given little time to live, he has instead led a rich family life, written a book, and even directed a first narrative feature film, though his illness has gradually led to his total paralysis. Directed with high polish by Frankie Fenton and narrated by Colin Farrell (speaking the subject’s prose), this should prove a sentimental favorite with viewers in various formats. It will also help boost the fortunes of Fitzmaurice’s film, “My Name Is Emily,” whose slow international progress continues with a U.S. theatrical opening later this month.

Fitzmaurice was an affable life-of-the-party type — and something of a writing prodigy from an early age — though by college he’d switched his primary creative focus to film. A graduation-project short, “Full Circle” (2003), was unusually widely seen. Even more so was 2008’s seven-minute “The Sound of People,” a Jaco Van Dormael-like “all of life in one montage” extravaganza that picked up a slew of awards. Meanwhile, he’d found a soulmate in radio professional Ruth, and they’d eagerly started a family.

It was at this full-steam-ahead juncture that Fitzmaurice developed a persistent limp that required looking at, with the eventual appalling diagnosis of MND, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This degenerative condition of little-understood origin — the same illness suffered by physicist Stephen Hawking, the subject of the 2014 biopic “The Theory of Everything” — triggers gradual loss of all muscle control. This means that the once-vigorous Fitzmaurice now cannot breathe, swallow or speak without mechanical aid. In archival footage (mostly home movies), we see him serially lose physical abilities; the last time he walked, ran, or danced all having been captured on video.

Popular on Variety

Asking himself what the “best part of living with MND is,” he says, simply, “It’s the ‘living’ part.” Fitzmaurice scoffed at doctors’ offers to “pull the plug” as his physical life narrowed to a degree that would be unbearable to many others. “I love being alive,” he insists. Technology has made it possible for him to remain artistically active — speaking, writing and directing via eye-gaze-operated computer programs — and his devoted family has kept his life spiritually fulfilling. Indeed, much of “It’s Not Dark Yet” is a love story, portraying a marriage so perfectly matched that overwhelming hardship never seemed to seriously imperil its essential health (though Ruth admits it was a boon when nursing assistance let her be less of a caregiver and more of a spouse again).

The climax comes with Simon’s against-all-odds completion of the well-received drama “Emily,” a task he manages thanks to extensive advance storyboarding and a supportive crew. That movie, like “Sound of People” — and this documentary itself — is a somewhat breathless, bittersweet celebration of life that doesn’t shrink from sweeping poetical gestures. Fenton accesses that element here principally via impressive aerial shots of beautiful landscapes, not just in Ireland, but also Australia (where the family enjoyed a prolonged vacation before the disease advanced further) and Utah (where Fitzmaurice gushes a wee bit much toward his benefactor, the Sundance Film Festival).

Not a film for cynics, “It’s Not Yet Dark” at times risks overplaying its heart-on-sleeve emotions, as Fitzmaurice also hazards in his writing. But both subject and execution here summon the skill, as well as sincerity, required to overcome skepticism.

Sundance Film Review: 'It's Not Yet Dark'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2017. Running time: 77 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Ireland) A Newgrange Pictures and Kennedy Films presentation in association with the Irish Film Board. (International sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna.) Producers: Lesley McKimm, Kathryn Kennedy. Executive producer: Jackie Larkin.

Crew: Director: Frankie Fenton. Based on the book by Simon Fitzmaurice. Camera (color, HD): Kate McCullough. Editor: Dermot Diskin. Music: Stephen Rennicks.

With: Simon Fitzmaurice, Ruth Fitzmaurice, Damien Fitzmaurice, Florence Fitzmaurice, Kate Fitzmaurice, Phil McDarby, Hector Minto.

More Film

  • Pablo Guisa, Pablo Cruz, Enrique López

    Morbido, El Estudio Team on Massive Trans-Atlantic Genre Initiative (EXCLUSIVE)

    Trans-Atlantic Spanish-language production powerhouse El Estudio and Mexico’s Morbido Group have joined forces in the largest genre, horror and fantasy production initiative in the Spanish-speaking world. Feature films, series, remakes and reboots of classic IP and even unscripted programming are all part of the plan going forward for El Estudio and Morbido. Already, the companies [...]

  • Saudi Runaway

    Director Susanne Regina Maures on ‘Saudi Runaway’

    BERLIN —  Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake” posed the question of whether it’s possible to make a complete film from one POV and yet  create a true emotional connection with an audience if it doesn’t have a face to connect with. “Saudi Runaway” delivers a haunting POV experience via the hands of a woman, [...]

  • Abbas Kiarostami

    India’s Alliance Wraps Berlin Market With Abbas Kiarostami Package Deal (EXCLUSIVE)

    India’s Alliance Media & Entertainment is in the process of acquiring a library of works by late Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami for distribution in the Indian subcontinent from France’s MK2 Films. The deal covers 33 features, documentaries and shorts from Kiarostami’s oeuvre, including “Taste of Cherry,” “The Wind Will Carry Us” and “Where Is My [...]

  • Rachel Brosnahan25th Annual Screen Actors Guild

    Film News Roundup: Rachel Brosnahan Starring in Sci-Fi Movie 'Distant'

    In today’s film news roundup, Rachel Brosnahan will try science-fiction, documentaries about Herb Alpert and Sasha Joseph Neulinger find homes, and Cameron Boyce’s “Runt” gets a premiere. CASTING Rachel Brosnahan will star with Anthony Ramos in Amblin Partners’ upcoming comedic sci-fi film “Distant.” Popular on Variety Will Speck and Josh Gordon will direct from Spenser [...]

  • Aldis Hodge Regina King

    Aldis Hodge Gushes Over Working With First-Time Film Director Regina King

    Regina King is on a roll. After winning an Oscar for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and starring as masked vigilante Sister Knight in HBO’s “Watchmen,” King is gearing up to make her film directing debut with “One Night in Miami.” Adapted by Kemp Powers from his play of the same name, the film dramatizes a [...]

  • Jon Berg

    Netflix Developing Female-Fronted Comedy Film With Jon Berg (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix is developing an untitled female-led comedy with producer Jon Berg, the former Warner Bros.’ co-president of production. The writing team of Jordan Roter (“The Tear Down,” “Camp Rules”) and Monica Corcoran Harel (New York Times, Marie Claire) has been attached to write the project. Netflix is keeping the logline under wraps. The project will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content