In the golden age of Hollywood, romantic 'women's pictures' about blindness were almost a genre in themselves. Who can forget Irene Dunne in Magnificent Obsession, Bette Davis in Dark Victory, Jane Wyman in yet another Magnificent Obsession? At First Sight, director Irwin Winkler's sentimental throwback, is a tribute of sorts to those long-ago days of a good cry, with Val Kilmer in the 'leading lady' role.

Kilmer plays Virgil, an upstate New York masseur who has been blind since childhood. Virgil is comfortable with the circumscribed world he has managed to create in his small town and at the Bear Mountain Inn, where some of his massage clients scarcely notice that he is sightless. Among those, at first, is Amy (Mira Sorvino), a work-driven Manhattan architect, who drops by the Inn for a weekend of rest and recreation, only to become intrigued with the sensitive and handsome masseur. Soon she has developed a major crush.

Virgil, on the other hand, proceeds more cautiously. Though attracted to the sweet-natured Amy, he recognizes that entering his day-to-day world-one of measured steps and spatial conformity-will not be easy for her. Virgil's unmarried sister Jennie (Kelly McGillis) is another concern. She has long looked after her brother and has seen him through some rough times, sacrificing much of her own happiness in the bargain. Jennie is the rock that has kept Virgil sane and she's not about to relinquish her guardian role.

Once Amy and Virgil become lovers, the dynamic changes. Amy learns of an experimental technique that could restore Virgil's sight and she encourages him to consult a specialist. Virgil is hesitant, but Amy urges him to take the chance. Jennie disapproves, fearing that her brother will be disappointed, but also jealous of Amy's increasing hold on Virgil. Amazingly, the surgical procedure restores some of his sight, but only for a brief time. Seeing his first lobster, Virgil mutters: 'People eat that?' Less humorously, Virgil struggles with colors and perspective, which frustrate him so that he crashes through a glass door.

Kilmer is at his most effective in scenes revealing Virgil's anger and self-doubt, while Sorvino seems to struggle with Amy's darker impulses. Nathan Lane turns up as a sight therapist who imparts some scientific information, gets off a few one-liners and moves on. It remains for Kelly McGillis to provide the movie's strongest performance, that of a long-suffering unpaid nurse who wouldn't mind a bit of praise for her steadfast devotion.

While based on an actual case, chronicled in a book by Dr. Oliver Sacks of Awakenings fame, At First Sight regrettably plays more like a soap opera than a real-life story. Mark Isham's music score, not to mention a generic Alan and Marilyn Bergman song called 'Love Is Where You Are,' provide a syrupy effect almost as relentless as a subplot involving Virgil's search for his long-lost, hard-nosed father. When Virgil finally tracks him down-on a construction site, no less-the stage is set for dramatic fireworks, but, in a final disappointment, they fail to appear. That wouldn't have happened in the old days, with Bette Davis in the lead.

--Ed Kelleher