Director/ Steven Eastwood
Watched on MUBI
Director Steven Eastwood spent one year filming in and near a hospice on the Isle of Wight, chronicling the deaths of four people facing terminal illnesses. The movie begins with a point-of-view shot from the bow of the fog-bound ferry bringing us to the island. Immediately I thought of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, carrying the souls of the recently deceased across the river Styx, dividing the living from dead. It’s in no way meant to be ghoulish, but the symbolism seems in keeping with the film’s unblinking invitation to watch, sit with, contemplate, and assess death’s implacable approach. People cross the water to die, but in reality they are already dead. The trip is a mere formality.
Island avoids all the tropes of disease porn documentary. The four main subjects of the film–an elderly woman, two middle-to-late age men, and a younger man with a small daughter–aren’t joyously living life to the fullest despite their impending deaths. Mary Chessell, Alan Hardy, Roy Howard, and Jamie Gunnell don’t dispense tear-dripped epithets or profoundly knowing nuggets of wisdom. They don’t sit for lengthy on-camera interviews about fears, regrets, or remorse. Rather, Eastwood’s camera records the mundane details of day-to-day normalcy; the eating and sleeping and visiting that goes on during what essentially is a long act of waiting. Waiting for death, the inevitable. An argument could be made that Eastwood’s camera functions as death’s presence.
We don’t learn the names of the disease or illness killing these people. We don’t hear much talk of medicines or life-prolonging treatments. We never learn how much time they have left. The movie is told in vignettes, becalmed and gentle glimpses into sunlit rooms, observing family visits, patients watching TV, nurses going about their duties. One episode takes place at a final community party for Gunnell, the young father. During that sequence, while Gunnell bravely endures hugs and kisses from neighbors and friends, Eastwood catches a telling moment when the man is nearly overcome with pain. His grimace, which no one else seems to notice, brings home the loneliness of death.
Island is a patient vigil. At times, its reticence limits the movie’s emotional opportunities. It can come across as more clinical than it needs to be. Eastwood’s distance can seem cold when contrasted with the warm hospice environment. But in the end the director’s approach is commendably respectful. By refusing to sentimentalize any of these individuals, he is presenting a character study in which the main character is death itself, waiting in the wings.