~ Wit, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Emma Thompson, HBO 2001
I was attending an oncology nursing convention the first time I saw this film shortly after its release. My best memory of it was that it was the most searingly honest portrayal of a person with cancer that I has ever witnessed outside of hospital. It was also the most powerfully honest portrayal of a nurse that I had seen in any media. My recent second viewing only confirmed those impressions.
Wit is based on a play by Margaret Edson who at one time in her life worked as a unit clerk on an oncology ward. This teleplay was written by Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson, both Academy Award winners. Ms. Thompson inhabits the role of Vivian Bearing, a British professor of English, specializing in the poetry of John Donne. Bearing is a brilliant scholar, aloof, and demanding as much of her students as she does of herself. She is both feared and revered on campus. Then she gets diagnosed with Stage IV advanced ovarian cancer and is enrolled in a very difficult eight month course of an experimental chemotherapy regimen. She has never married, has never had children, and has accumulated more rivals than friends in her academic career.
Nearly the whole action of the film takes place in hospital. In transposing the piece from theater to film, the director retains the device of the character speaking directly to the audience in extended monologues. Though not a properly cinematic device, it works perhaps even better here than on the stage because of the camera’s ability to frame Thompson’s face in close-ups that convincingly capture her deteriorating appearance and her growing desperation.
“Wit” can be defined as a form of intellectual humor. The monologues demand careful listening, part of their power stemming from erudite puns and other language tricks and paradoxes. This makes repeated viewings fresh and engaging. Wit is also the basis of style in metaphysical poetry such as Donne’s, a contemporary of Shakespeare. This “wit’ along with Donne’s obsession with the intersections of love, death, and religion become central to Bearing’s metamorphosis. Over the course of treatment her health declines. The tumor shrinks but metastasizes. She comes to realize that she has devalued love and affection in favor of reason and intellect.
Her doctors are more academic researchers than dedicated clinicians. They are drawn to the science rather than the art of healing. There are certainly oncologists with more empathy and better bedside manner than seen here. But the portraits are focused rather than exaggerated. Their determined, exacting approach to science mirrors Professor Bearing’s own approach to literature. Of all the hospital staff, it is her nurse, Susie Monahan, who most keenly recognizes and respects the humanity of this dying woman’s situation. Actress Audra McDonald (who would be later cast as a physician in TV’s Gray’s Anatomy) manages to play Susie as an authentic human being without falling to sentimentality or stereotype. The scene in which she sits on the patient’s bed in the middle of the night, sharing a popsicle, struck me as something I would have done as a nurse.
This is possibly Emma Thompson’s best screen performance. She is totally convincing as a cancer patient, whether she is enduring intractible nausea and vomiting or hoarsely whispering poetry through a great veil of pain. Having spent two decades working in hospital, I judge the entire production to be very realistic and true in both form and spirit. Medical procedures, staff interactions, power differentials in the hospital hierarchy, nurses working to advocate for patients are presented as background rather than highlighted as the drama proceeds. The “Grand Rounds” scene would be funny if it weren’t so sad. “That was very educational” Bearing says to the camera, “I am learning to suffer.” The contrast between the necessarily indelicate realism of the resusitation (Code Blue) scene with the ethereal beauty of the ‘runaway rabbit’ scene that precedes it is powerful. That scene of Bearing’s friend and mentor reading the classic childrens book will bring tears and remain in memory.
Wit” remains one of the very best examples of this genre, perhaps the best “cancer” movie to date. It is brilliantly informative at both an intellectual and emotional level. I would recommend it to anyone, but especially to anyone close to someone dealing with cancer. For persons with cancer, watching this film can be an enlightening though painful journey of self-exploration. ****
Available through local libraries, Netflix, or Blockbuster. Or buy it through this site. It’s a keeper.
Purchase from Amazon: Wit