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.
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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.