A Critical Reading of "Big Bird"

A Critical Reading of "Big Bird"

Being Cancer’s primary purpose is to nurture and support the on-line community of cancer survivors and bloggers.  The Book Club is a feature designed to increase involvement of the community, as well as to give the blog a well-rounded appeal by offering a number of different resources.  But the design of the Book Club dictates that we only cover one book a month. And the Book List is not able to give much guidance and advice to the blog reader.

So as a corollary, I am starting a Reviews page.  This section will contain critical reviews of cancer-related books and other media.  This way I can  move ahead with reviews of other books by our own bloggers (several have sent me review copies) as well as recent and past cancer books. Most of the books will be personal narratives but I also see a need for reviews of books on healthcare politics, alternative and complimentary therapies, coping, etc.  I also plan to review other cancer-related media such as music and movies.

Note: I will not accept payment from publishers or their agents for reviews per se, although I will accept complimentary copies for reviewing purposes.  I do receive 4% commission of the purchase price of new or used materials ordered through my Amazon ads.  As always I look forward to any comments and suggestions that readers may have.

Book Reviews:

~ The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by Sandi Wisenberg

A person’s response to cancer reflects that person’s personality, their upbringing, and their culture as well as their biology.  These differences are what we find interesting about their stories although it may be the universality of the cancer experience that we hope to discover and, in doing so, find affirmation of our own.  Cancer blogger, Sandi Wisenberg, happens to be a professional writer.  Not all cancer writers are.  She demonstrates her talents easily with phrases like – “It’s the subtlety of it, as cruel as a mean girl’s gossip, almost not there but there.“

Her “Cancer Bitch” reads like someone who has thrown herself open to the experience, emotionally and intellectually buffeted by the currents, recording everything just as it washes over her.  She takes us through the drama of her diagnosis of breast cancer, her mastectomy and aftercare, fussing with drainage tubes and specialty apparel.

“The Adventures of Cancer Bitch” took an atypical route for cancer memoirs.  The tone is very straightforward, cynical at times, whimsical at others.  It is largely an unsentimental telling.  The author does not appeal so directly to our emotions.  Nor does the success of the book depend upon humor.  Indeed the prominent variations found in books about cancer experiences fall into either the “cancer profoundly changed my life for the better” camp or the “I had to laugh so I wouldn’t cry” school.

The author’s strong political convictions prompt her to question the purity of motive of big corporations acting as sponsors for cancer fundraising events, the well-publicized, media-blanketed events that allow everyone to feel good about the ’cause’.  Where do the dollars go?  research into more effective drugs with ever-higher profit margins? or prevention and early detection efforts? or solving the even more politically treacherous questions about what factors of modern life (shampoos, deodorants, food additives) contribute to cancer risk in the first place.  Still…they are raising money to combat the cancer lurking so threateningly in her body. Her political reaction is conflicted.

Later she deals with the issue of pain. “The topic for today is pain and pain – pain that causes weeping and pain that comes from weeping, and how difficult it is to tell the difference between the two.”  And the pain of depression, “soul corroding depression.  The kind of depression where the world seems like a vast desert and there nothing to connect to, to hold onto, that every human in the universe is just a little desperate bucket of misery just going after distraction.  And you carry on a conversation in the midst of this depression, but the conversation is going on in a parallel, pretend world, what’s real is the feeling underneath you can’t shake, that nothing matters.  And you can’t stand it.”

Her anxiety sets in motion a confluence of both suffering and depression.  “Underneath the suffering was psychic pain, which is an entity, but I can deal with an entity, it is better than the erosion created by depression, which is more absent than absence, depression is the oxygen-gulping aridness of the world…So there is no part of you left that can slither its way around and get its interest quickened by an idea or person or mind or glazed Moroccan tiles.  There is no room for beauty … There is only the ash that’s left after a fire, after a long, long rain.”

Everyone deals with cancer in their own way.  The way we respond to the experience of cancer is very much mediated by our character, personality, upbringing, and other important life experiences.  The author has found an original voice to tell her tale.  The author’s unique persona is exemplified by the section near the end of the book titled “An Accounting”.  Many cancer accounts include a “what I have learned” section and “Cancer Bitch” is no exception here.  But even here she avoids sentimentality, hilarity, and “tired inspirational quotes”.  There is real, honest, hard-earned advice here.

“Some people don’t know how to react to a cancer diagnosis and will disappear”  Many fellow travelers have confirmed this to me. “Don’t think about people who died (of cancer)”  Your friends will avoid this topic like the plague, and instead will only remind you of all the people who did well.  “That you can switch oncologists” is advice that some of us could have, should have taken but for our fear.

“That the person with whom you were friendly, who was there when you received the cancer phone call, will be decidedly unempathetic and in the course of a year, will never ask how you are doing.”  This may sound cynical, even anger, but honest it is.  Too often we do not talk about the anger we are feeling because of the cancer.

When I asked her about her “Cancer Bitch” tag, the author told me in an email “it has allowed me to be more arch and sarcastic in my writing, while at the same time being self-critical. This is especially so when I write about Cancer Bitch in the third person.”

“That you prefer medical care by women.” It is certainly easy to imagine that, especially for breast, gynecological, and even prostate cancers, the sex of the practitioner might be relevant in how comfortable we feel.

Though Wisenberg does not try to make humor a theme in her writing, she doesn’t lack a sense of irony.  “That in hospitals they still wake you up to see how you are doing.”  “That you sister will call you after every chemo” suggest both irony and understated gratitude.

The author ends the book with an account of participating in a cancer march.  She suggest that the sponsoring institution might well have a double agenda – not only to honor the survivors but also to advertise its role in combating cancer.  Is this cynical?  Maybe, but having been on the corporate aide of healthcare, I can attest that visibility at such public events is essential to the public relations concerns of healthcare systems.

In her closing paragraph Wisenberg, again in the third person, refers to herself as “a cynical Cancer Bitch.”  She resents the fact that no one at her treating hospital “had done anything to commemorate my last round of chemo.”  But then she imagines that at next year’s march, she might bring all her “chemo escorts” to march beside her.  “It might be meaningful.  It might be festive.”

Order from Amazon: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch

~ The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow; Hyperion Books: New York, 2008

One of the more successful books of the genre, The Last Lecture is story of a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  I selected this book to launch our on-line cancer book club .  The set-up and title stem from the academic tradition of university professors giving a “last lecture”, a lecture they might give at retirement in which they might impart to the audience whatever great wisdom they may have accumulated during a lifetime of study and reflection.  In this case the scenario is real, the lecturer is terminally ill.  The opportunity for the lecture and subsequent publicity gave rise to this book, structured as a series of sixty short lectures, divided into six sections or themes.

Professor Pausch is a young man of 46 who married rather late and is consequently the father of three young children.  One gets a sense that it was for them that he elected the most difficult of the treatment choices available to him.  After his inevitable relapse, he structures his life largely around establishing a legacy and memory for his children.  “Kids – more than anything else – need to know their parents love them.  Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.”

Chapters devoted to his children perhaps resonated most with readers.  His writing, with the assistance of Wall Street Journal columnist, Jeff Zaslow, seems inspired here.  Randy Pausch is afraid that his 18 month-old daughter may not even remember him.  He wants her “to grow up knowing that (he) was the first man ever to fall in love with her.”  Later he confesses that “in my every encounter with them, I’m saying goodbye.”

Earlier in the book he reflects on how his own upbringing helped to mold the person he was to become.  By extension the reader can see how his journey from childhood to adulthood also informed how he was going to meet his final life’s challenge, learning to battle then to succumb to an aggressive cancer.  The chapters reveal a whole series of tiny pearls of wisdom, as we feel that we are in the presence not only of a dying man but also a gifted teacher.  “Time must be explicitly managed,”  “You can always change the plan, but only if you have a plan,”  “Are you spending time on the right things?” and “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

The hardcover book is printed in a small format, like a small notebook, befitting its mini-lecture structure and short length (200 pages).  The style is accessible, simple and elegant.  The objective and instructional tone allows for some intimate sharing but keeps the story from falling into mere sentimentalism. The book became a national bestseller.  The last days of his life became a national pastime with multiple televised and print interviews, a YouTube sensation, and an extended website.

Purchase from Amazon:
Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture Classroom Edition [Interactive DVD]

The Last Lecture

~ What is Death? by Etan Boritzer

Etan Boritzer follows the success of his first two books What is God? and What is Love? with the third in his series of explaining abstract concepts to children.  What is Death? is appropriately a thin book with just sixteen pages of text.  Facing each page are colorful, intricate drawings by artist Nancy Forrest.  Each picture illustrates the concepts presented on the facing page.  The aithor starts the discussion by describing the big question – what is death?  We know that everything dies.  But we don’t know what happens afterward.  People die when they are old, very sick, or have accidents.  Some deaths are peaceful, some are not.

The author discusses why some people are scared of death – it’s like walking into a dark room.  And we all have seen beautiful things in nature die.  Why is that? He offers an explanation of culture and religion, and the fact that different people have different ideas about death and dying.  Some people are buried, some are cremated.  The Egyptians wrapped their dead in cloths.

Boritzer hits the mark with children by getting them to relate to the death of someone’s grandfather.  He suggests that sometimes it looks like the person is just sleeping.  Then he talks about the sadness people have after someone dies.  He asks the provocative question – what happens to the dead person’s goodness, their love, their stories, the stuff inside – after the person’s outside, their body, has died.

This leads to a discussion of different ideas regarding a soul, that element of personhood that some people believe lives on, in some other place or maybe to be reborn again in another body.  He touches on Hindu, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish beliefs about death.  He also points out that there are people that do not believe in a soul or afterlife.  The author appeals to common childhood experiences, like moving to a new home, to illustrate more abstract concepts.

So, maybe if we start to think of Death / in all these good ways, / we’ll be able to do good / and living things in Life.

Discussing abstract subjects such as God and Death can surely be difficult for parents.  But such things do come up.  This is perhaps especially relevant to families dealing with cancer, whether the death is imminent of just a possibility.  These questions are difficult to answer with any concrete finality.  But the discussion must take place.  Boritzer’s books are a good starting point.  He approaches the subject in a step-by-step way, appealing wherever possible to typical experiences children may have already had.  Since he deals with the topic from multiple viewpoints, the book is valuable for parents from a wide range of belief systems.  The illustrations are mostly soft and soothing, relying on pastels and fluid lines to express concepts in realistic but nonthreatening ways.

Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, whether you are facing cancer in your family or not, What is Death? is liable to make a valuable addition or gift to the children in your life.

Purchase from Amazon: What Is Death

~ When Someone You Love Has Cancer by Cecil Murphy.

I received a review copy of this book last summer and mentioned the fact in a previous post.  Today I offer a review in lieu of our Book Club which will resume in January.  When Someone You Love Has Cancer is unique is several ways.  First it is oriented not towards the cancer patient but, as the subtitle indicates, towards the Comfort and Encouragement for Caregivers and Loved Ones.  Secondly its format makes the book stand out.  It measures only six and a quarter inches square and features a hardcover laminated, illustrated cover, reminding one more of a young child’s first book.

Above the ISNB number on the back cover are the words “Gift Book”.  Indeed that is how both the physical format and the content have been designed.  This is appropriate.  When I was diagnosed, I received books, stuffed animals, food, and vitamin supplements from friends – small tokens of concern and well-wishing.  Now there is something to give your friend whose world has been stricken by another’s cancer.  The 64 page booklet, broken up by numerous illustrations, quotes, and prayers, is probably about what a person’s time and energy can tackle in a time of crisis.

Cecil Murphy has a background as a minister before becoming a professional writer.  So he had both professional as well as personal experience’s with cancer.  The book is composed of ten “chapters”.  Each section begins with a dialogue between a cancer victim and a friend.  The dialogues ring true and are followed by a short prayer.  The main idea of the chapter is reinforced by script in the corner of the page.  Chapters include Talking About it, “I Just Need a Little Reassurance”, What Can I Do?, and Anxious and Apprehensive. A short appendix is entitled Practical Things You Can Do to Help Those Diagnosed with Cancer.

The advice is usually simple, direct and easy to grasp without belaboring the points.  It is also advice that seems psychologically and therapeutically sound based on my own seventeen years experience working with cancer patients.  One final point is both a strength and a weakness of the book.  The booklet has a strong spiritual, and specifically Christian focus.  Not everyone has this strong a spiritual orientation, although it is probably true that many become more spiritual after diagnosis.  But its reliance on quotations from the Old and New Testaments might tend to exclude those from other religious traditions.

Most of you reading this have gone through the classic stages of dealing with a cancer diagnosis.  Most are grateful for the support and help you received during those first days.  Now you have a small way of giving back the next time you hear of someone with a new cancer diagnosis.

Order from Amazon: When Someone You Love Has Cancer: Comfort and Encouragement for Caregivers and Loved Ones

Movie Reviews:

~ I’ve Loved You So Long – directed by Phillipe Claudel; starring Kristen Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein.  Sony Pictures, 2009.  French with English subtitles.

This picture is strictly not a cancer film, though it easily could have been.  Casual watchers may even make that assumption (I did).  I chose it for review because it deals so engagingly with issues of grief and the loss of a child.  The tension of the movie hinges upon details of the main character’s secret.  That secret is only gradually revealed throughout the course of the film.  Juliette, played by English actress, Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient), has just been released after fifteen years in prison.  She is met by her younger sister, Lea (Zylberstein), with whom she has been invited to stay during her transition back into society.  The sister and her husband live in a university town, Nancy, where they are professors.  They have two young, adopted Vietnamese daughters.

Initially we do not even know Juliette’s crime.  In private and heated conversation between Lea and her husband, Luc, we learn the crime was murder.  Understandably he is not comfortable having her in the house.  The reason for her fifteen year absence is kept secret from their circle of friends.  Later we learn that the victim of the crime was Juliette’s six-year old son, Pierre.  Her husband testified against her at her trial for kidnapping and murder.  To this point it is a little difficult to sympathize with Juliette, though we suspect that we will learn to.  Juliette is taciturn, resentful, easily angered.  She keeps everyone, including her sister (and the audience), at a distance.  After the further details of her crime are revealed, it becomes even more difficult to identify with this sullen, seemingly amoral woman.

The emotional strength of the drama centers around the relationship between the two sisters.  After the trial, Juliette’s parents disowned her.  They withheld from Lea the nature of her older sister’s crime and forbade her from writing to her sister in prison.  Lea wants to understand, to restore their relationship, but Juliette seems closed to this.  Juliette engages in some casual, impersonal sex, an expression of her new-found freedom that does not endear her any further with the audience.  Later she establishes tenuous, personal relationships with two different men.  Her motives are suspect though we hope that one of these helps break through her emotional limbo.  Everyone is the film is well cast – the parole officer, a potential employer, Lea’s faculty friends – but the movie belongs to the two women.  Thomas plays her role without make-up, looking plain, damaged, and even a bit frightening.  According to the French cinema aesthetic, long segments of the movie involve shots of her hauntingly sad face, staring and smoking.  The dialogue is somewhat sparse but precise.  Important aspects of the characters are revealed visually rather than spelled out with spoken explanations.

Juliette is not entirely comfortable living with her sister’s family though she slowly, guardedly begins to establish relationships with the young girls and Lea’s father-in-law, rendered speechless by an earlier stroke.  Though we learn that Juliette had been a medical doctor before her incarceration, she is now just looking for a more menial job.  She desires to move into her own place.  Her growing relationship with her parole officer does not work out.  Lea’s fellow faculty member and close friend is attracted to Juliette though he senses the frailty of her emotional state.  We root for this one to succeed and watch it progress albeit subtly and cautiously.

The core of Juliette’s secret is not revealed until close the end of the film.  I will not reveal it here.  When Lea pleads that she could have helped her if she’d known, Juliette responds “”Nothing mattered anymore. I wanted to go to prison. Either way, I was guilty. I’d given birth to him and condemned him to die. And I had nothing to say. Explain? Explain what? To whom? Explaining is looking for excuses. Death has no excuses. The worst prison is the death of one’s child. You never get out of it.

Thomas’s stunning performance sustains the film.  It is full of nuance and contradiction, mystery and self-loathing.  And yet it is played out so delicately, paced so deliberately, that we hang on until the end, hoping for explanation and redemption.  The movie does not disappointment the patient.  A moving, subtly executed drama.   ***

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I’ve Loved You So Long

~ My Life Without Me directed by Isabel Coxet, starring Sarah Polley, Amanda Plummer, Scott Speedman, and Mark Ruffalo.  Sony Pictures Classics 2003

Terminal illness has always been a darling scenario for movie directors.  Interpretations vary in how relatively shamelessly they pander to sentimentalism. Certainly one could ask if it were possible at all to deal with the subject with sensitivity and yet avoid any hint of sentimentality.

My Life Without Me, a film with indie sensibilities, seems to want to ride that thin line.  Whether it succeeds or not is probably in the eyes of each viewer, but I suspect the cancer audience, for whom I usually write, will grant the film a far greater degree of latitude.

The inhabitants of this film are blue-collar Canadian whose lives are marked by both dysfunction and simple beauty.  The characters are not simple nor are they particularly stereotyped.  But they have not been blessed with the generous accumulation of material goods, social circumstance, or warm relationships so typically found in printed and cinematic visions of cancer victims.

Sarah Polley stars as Ann, a twenty-three year old bright but underachieving mother of two young girls who works night clean-up crew at a local university.  Her husband, her high school sweetheart is likable but immature (he is unemployed as the movie opens).  His affection for the children is obvious but more playful than responsible.

Ann’s mother, played by Ann Harry of Pink, is bitter and hardworking, her life overshadowed by a past that includes a husband (and father to Ann) imprisoned for the past ten years.  Alfred Molina in a cameo role here.  The young family lives in a trailer parked in her mother’s backyard.  Ann is the most sensible, resourceful one of the lot, her life not yet dulled by her surroundings.

The setting is a grey and rainy Vancouver.  What sets this movie apart is Ann’s decision not to tell anyone that she has been diagnosed with inoperable, metastatic ovarian cancer.  After she collapses at home and ends up at the hospital, she says that she has anemia treatable with vitamins.

The day of her diagnosis is the day that her husband, Don, lands a job with a swimming pool contractor. He beams that he feels like this is a “new beginning.”  She goes on to her job, first stopping at a late-night cafe, to jot down a list of things to do before she dies in a few months.  This is handled with much more schmalz in The Bucket List.  Record birthday messages for them for every year until they are 18.  Find her husband a new wife.  Have sex with other men “just to see what it is like”.  Make someone fall in love with her.

These are her small life’s ambitions, to be compressed into a few short months.  This is where the critics seemed to split over the moral ambitions of the film.  Can these be the selfless acts of a selfish woman?  Having a direct experience with cancer might affect one’s answer.  Ann does find a sensitive but emotionally unteathered lover is Mark Ruffalo’s Lee.  He does fall in love with Ann but, though she admits to being married, she never reveals she is dying.  A beautiful young nurse moves in next door.  Her name is Ann also.  She, of course, gets invited over for dinner. The girls love her.

The film’s conceit is that Ann accomplishes most of her list.  In the film’s epilogue her husband and neighbor, Ann, have married; her mother is dating again; her children happy; and her lover ready to move on with his stalled life.

Sarah Polley’s performance is understated, but revealing volumes in the subtlest expressions.  The scene of her recording her birthday messages late at night alone in a car in an empty parking lot will bring any cancer survivor to tears.  This is Spanish director, Isabel Coxet’s second film.  The film had the venerated director Pedro Almodovar as producer.

Each viewer will make their own judgements about Ann’s decisions.  I suspect all cancer survivors will sympathize.  An excellent film.  ***

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My Life Without Me

I first watched this movie unintentionally, flying over the Atlantic on our way back from Ireland.  And I just finished reading a dozen or so critics’ reviews.  After viewing a handful of other “cancer” movies recently, I am ready to share two observations.  First that the most authentic and balanced treatments of our disease in cinema tend to come from smaller, indie productions.  Second that reviewers with a very personal experience with cancer probably see these movies differently than others.

~ My Sister’s Keeper – Directed by Nick Cassavetes.  Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Sofia Vessiliera, Joan Cusak, Alec Baldwin

My Sister’s Keeper is not without merit and certainly belongs in our library of movies dealing with cancer.  If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know that the central conceit of this movie involves the sister of a young cancer patient taking her parents to court over control of her body – “medical emancipation” of a minor.  As it turns out this movie is not really a courtroom drama.

Anna (Abigail Breslin) is the protesting sister of Kate (Medium’s Sofia Vassiliera) , the 15 year old leukemia patient.  Diagnosed at age three, her parents decide to conceive a genetically-engineered sibling in order to provide a matched source of cord blood, bone marrow, and other body parts.  At the point of the movie Kate needs a kidney.  It is now that Anna resists further harvesting.  Parents are played by Cameron Diaz, a lawyer who gave up her successful career to care for Kate full-time, and Jason Patric, a fire chief supporting the family while becoming marginalized from the family drama.  “Also appearing” are underwritten parts for the brother and aunt.  Alec Baldwin plays the local attorney-TV personality who takes Anna’s case.  Joan Cusack gives the film’s most nuanced performance as the judge dealing with grieving issues of her own.

Everyone does a credible job of acting without anyone really standing out.  This should be a small drama about a very pressing issue.  In this care the casting of “big stars” detracts from the story.  Diaz usually plays lighter roles and Baldwin is overused these days as variations of the big lawyer/executive/etc.  While more subtle dialogue might have made a finer point, this movie consistently shoots for melodramatic zingers – after the initial confrontation between mother and lawyer – “For a minute there you almost convinced me that you cared (about Kate)” – “For a minute there I almost thought you did too.”

The younger stars fare better.  The Kate character matures as the film progresses, growing wiser beyond her years as her leukemia progresses.  I suspect that this is not an uncommon phenomenon with child survivors.  The style of the movie is more inventive than the script.  Some critics were distracted by the frequent voice-overs.  But in circulating the narratives among the major characters, we become focused on how intimately this illness has personally affected everyone involved.

The brief romantic interlude between Kate and another leukemia victim, Taylor, has been criticized as too convenient and expendable (the storyline drops with Taylor’s death).  I found that those awkward interactions highlighted how chronic illness shapes and molds the developing lives of children.  Few but cancer survivors themselves will appreciate the import of their first conversation.  “Hi, I’m AML”  “I”m APL” – “A rare one”  Exchanging diagnoses disguised as identity.  Their friendship also illustrates how people with cancer learn to search out blessings.  “If I didn’t have cancer, I would have never met you!”

Likewise the very fleeting portrayals of medical procedures – a very young child’s body, partially covered by blue surgical dressing, backside exposed for bone marrow harvest – confront us with the harsher aspects of cancer treatment.  Taylor holding the emesis basin for Kate’s nausea reinforces how otherwise bizarre transactions become normal and familiar for people dealing with chronic illness.

When Anna asks Kate late in the film, “Are you in pain?”,  her reply foreshadows later developments “My whole life is a pain!”  The movie is based on a book by the same name by Jodi Picoult.  The endings are different with the movie’s version more honest and illuminating.  Having highlighted the film’s numerous excesses,  I would concede that having tissues handy while watching My Sister’s Keeper is advisable.  Scenes between Kate and her mother, Kate and her sister are delicately and painfully handled.  Anyone with cancer has been there or imagined being there.  Most films in which cancer is a leading character concern the lives of adults.  In dealing directly with childhood cancer, this films explores the complicated, interconnecting strands of ethics, parenthood, loss, emotional and physical pain, and growing up too soon.  And that is reason enough to see My Sister’s Keeper. Rating **

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My Sister’s Keeper – Movie Tie-In: A Novel – book

My Sister’s Keeper – movie version

~ 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 DonneBearing 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 won 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.  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 researchers rather than 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 not exaggerated.  Their determined, exacting approach to science mirrors Prof Bearing’s approach to literature.  Of all the hospital staff, it is only her nurse, Susie Monahan, who 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.

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 can say that the entire production is very realistic and true. Medical procedures, staff interactions, power differentials in the hospital hierarchy, nurses working to advocate for patients are reflected rather than highlighted as the drama proceedsThe “Grand Rounds” scene would be funny if it weren’t so sad“That was very educational” Bearing says, “I am learning to suffer.”  And contrast the necessarily indelicate realism of the resusitation scene with the ethereal beauty of the runaway rabbit scene that precedes it.  That one will bring tears and remain in memory

Wit” remains one of the very best examples of this genre. 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.   ****

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