Island (2017)

Island first published by Sight & Sound, October 2018

Review: Island begins with white light. This reveals itself to be a thick mist from which there faintly emerges a WightLink ferry (by coincidence named the ‘Wight Light’) arriving from Hampshire in southern England to the island which gives the film its title. Of course an arrival is always a good starting point for a narrative, marking some kind of entrance, and the beginning of an adventure – yet much as Island is concerned with people coming to the end of their lives, even its introductory sequence is full of closural imagery. The white light is a common figure for the destination point at the end of the tunnel-vision journey into death, and in ancient mythology, a ferry (specifically, Charon‘s) is the vessel that conveys people from the land of the living to the Underworld. Steven Eastwood’s documentary mostly tracks four people with terminal illness over the course of twelve months, but it occasionally cuts away to shots of those ferries, and of wharfs and harbours on the Isle of Wight, and of owls (with their Stygian associations), and of waves endlessly buffeting the rocky shoreline. It is a vision of the island’s life, nature and means of crossing (over), with death figured as an essential part of the landscape.

After its prologue, Island‘s first image is of elderly Alan Hardy. With his hands clasped, his eyes closed and his mouth agape, he is lying dead in a coffin. This too is a paradoxical endpoint seen at the beginning – for, over the course of the rest of the film, Alan is shown very much alive, chain smoking, chatting with carers and nurses, and sharing with an unseen Eastwood his philosophical outlook (on the illusory nature of calibrated time, “the universal now” of experienced time, the transience of the body and the benignity of the universe). “I’ve no reason to stay,” the good-natured widower says, “I know where I’m going” – and because of that preview of his corpse being sealed for burial, we too are in no doubt where Alan is headed. Eastwood follows Alan’s gradual deterioration, and then, towards the documentary’s end, films Alan in fixed medium shot as he actually draws his last rattling breaths in his sleep. It is a disarmingly intimate moment of fleeting transition, confronting in its taboo nature but free from drama – and while Eastwood himself is an absent presence off-camera, he sleeps through it too, and has to be woken by the hospice nurse after Alan has passed away.  

“That’s all you can ask for,” comments the nurse of Alan’s death. “Lovely and peaceful. Beautiful.”  Alan, however, had been focused on his late wife Valerie, with whom he believed, even vividly dreamed, he would be reunited, whereas Roy Howard, who died earlier in the year, worried about the boyfriend David whom he was leaving behind. 40-year-old Jamie Gunnell is open and honest about his illness with his young daughter Aisla, while pushing away his concerned friends. “Gettin’ there,” says Jamie when asked, at a fundraiser to help him have one last holiday with his family, how he is. It is a response both banal and bleakly poignant in equal parts, as Jamie’s worsening condition makes everything resonate with mortality’s inevitable trajectory. Meanwhile ailing, octogenarian Mary Chessell staves off the loneliness of her final days with a television set as her constant companion. Occasional laboratory blow-ups of microscopic cancer biopsies offer a different, if no less intimate, perspective on the advance of these people’s morbidity.

Made by Eastwood (Those Who Are Jesus, 2001; Buried Land, 2010) alongside his multi-screen video installation on the same theme, The Interval and the Instant (2017), Island takes a (sometimes literally) long view of an event that, for all its interiority and abstraction, can be measured in social and physical terms. Documenting death is normally the province of ‘mondo‘ or snuff cinema, but Eastwood’s film, made with the full consent of all its participants, is a contemplative, non-exploitative affair. The film closes with the ferry leaving the Isle at night – yet in this inverted echo of the opening sequence (now darkness and departure rather than light and arrival), death is figured as part of a round trip where only the passengers change.

Synopsis: Isle of Wight, United Kingdom. Elderly widower Alan Hardy, 40-year-old father Jamie Gunnell, happy-go-lucky Roy Howard and lonely octogenarian Mary Chassell are documented deteriorating over the course of 12 months under the effects of terminal illness. Roy and Alan die.

© Anton Bitel