Motor Neuron Disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a rare condition that starts off with a numb feeling in a foot, or hand, and gradually damages the nerves to the point where one can no longer stand or speak. It is almost always fatal, recently claiming the life of famed actor Sam Shepard. The operative word in that sentence is almost, as it has yet to claim the life of author/ director Simon Fitzmaurice. That Simon’s tale is one of inspiration and hope says as much about his will and optimism as it does Frankie Fenton’s subtle but affecting direction.
Based on Simon Fitzmaurice’s autobiography of the same name, It’s Not Yet Dark, is a documentary that explores his life, with a focus on his need to be creative, eventually directing a feature-length film, My Name Is Emily, despite being unable to speak and bound to a wheelchair. Fenton uses photographs, home video clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and brand new interviews with friends and family to view his life and works in proper context. The clips and stills are interwoven nicely, so the movie never gets too bland or lackluster from a visual standpoint. Its structure feels a bit repetitive at times, with each new loss (i.e., legs then arms) bringing about similar discussions from the interviewees. But that is minor, as once he starts writing and directing again, the focus shifts to his coming back to his usual intense self.
It is this transition that holds the attention of the viewer. Simon is a fun-loving, charismatic figure, who keeps his spirits up throughout each new issue setback. There are times when he doesn’t know what to do or how to react, but he thinks of his wife, Ruth O’Neil Fitzmaurice, and their five children and decides that his love for them is more than enough to motivate him to keep fighting and trying to survive. It is sweet, and it does work, but you can sense how much more confident Simon is when on set, directing his actors or telling the director of photography the exact kind of shot needed. This confidence translates off-set as well. As his need to engage in creative endeavors is met, he becomes more lively, despite the MND’s progression.
“…clips and stills are interwoven nicely… subtle but affecting direction.”
Damien and Florence, Simon’s father and mother, are cheerful interviewees and are glad to see their son be so successful, MND be damned. Kate loves her brother and adores his enduring sense of humor, even in the face of this tragedy. The way he and Ruth stare at each other and hold hands when that is all that can happen conveys their everlasting bond. How much she does for him at first proves their love is based on something intangible but real. Ruth is also not afraid to be extremely vulnerable. She tries her best to support him and keep things going, even when faced with the bleakest prognosis. Ruth discusses how once the nurse Paula was hired, she felt like she could be a proper wife and mom again. This revelation gives her earlier words more weight, as the audience now gets an appropriate context for her thoughts and emotions during those first few trying months. But this is Simon’s story, and he is a fascinating man. Determined, fun, easy going, with a zest for life that just enraptures the audience. Simon’s words are narrated by Colin Farrell, and he does a bang-up job of making you feel the pain, anger, joy, and ultimately the hope that Simon clings to day in, day out.
It’s Not Yet Dark is not simply a tale of optimism in the face of an uncertain future, nor just a portrait of love overcoming the odds; it is a mosaic of passion for family, friends, storytelling, and life that brings out the best in humanity. It also examines the fiery craving deep in the soul which drives one to tell stories, a fire that will not be dimmed. The Fitzmaurices and their friends are a fun, entertaining bunch, and you will be touched and inspired to witness Simon’s perseverance.
It’s Not Yet Dark (2016) Directed by Frankie Fenton. Written by Simon Fitzmaurice. Starring Simon Fitzmaurice, Colin Farrell, Ruth O’Neil Fitzmaurice, Kate Fitzmaurice, Damien Fitzmaurice, Florence Fitzmaurice.