Haunting, uncompromising, and strangely life-affirming, this documentary about those at the end of their lives is not to be missed.
On a foggy day, a ferry comes slowly into focus. It is headed to the Isle of Wight, a short journey from mainland Britain. Here, Steven Eastwood’s documentary Island observes the lives of four hospice patients with terminal illnesses. If it sounds bleak, that’s because it is: the film is uncompromising in its depiction of illness and isolation, and what it is really like to be at the end of your life.
Island is slow, almost glacial in its pacing – and frankly, it should be. In many ways, the film evokes the very emotions that must be felt by its participants: feelings of loneliness, discomfort, and isolation seep into the frame, and admittedly, it can be challenging to keep your eyes on the film. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of heart-breaking moments throughout. A stunning long take of a funeral unfolding, the viewer unaware of who has passed until key members of the person’s family are revealed. A woman, waiting sat up in bed for her family to visit, only to realize that nobody is coming. And a moment towards the very end of the film so full of beauty and devastation that it is worth seeing the film for it alone.
While the film is often upsetting and difficult to watch, this is evidently not the filmmaker’s intention. In fact, in many moments, the film is quite warm and inviting. We see so much into these people’s lives in a brief 90-minute runtime. One of the participants is seen watching football with his mates, enjoying time with his wife and daughter. Another, lengthier scene involves the same participant at a pub with all his family and friends as they hold a charity fundraiser in his honour. In one of the film’s most striking moments, he is seen in a static shot, trying to hold back his illness while pop music blares and everyone is enjoying their time around him. That moment, and many like it, poignantly captures living with a terminal illness.
Eastwood’s film was made over 12 months with patients and staff at Earl Mountbatten Hospice. It would be easy for a subject matter like dying to be given a corny Hollywood treatment, but the film is, thankfully, a hugely respectful and vital look at the end of life. Island reminds you of the importance of living life while you can, to connect with those you love before it’s too late, and for that, it is essential viewing.