Cancer—I have seen your pitiless work,
The way you so silently grow from within.
The experts have learned how you burgeon and lurk,
A game meant to study but never to win.
So many have felt your pale fingers intrude;
So many have borne the despair in your wake;
So many have prayed that you might be subdued;
So many have suffered and cursed for your sake.
Physicians give odds with no true guarantee,
Less interest in me than my cunning disease.
They can’t cure themselves, and they cannot cure me;
They fight off the chorus, then wait for reprise.
Oh, cancer, your name is a tyrant for now,
But after your reign, we will nevermore bow.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (for themes and brief nudity and language)


I’ve seen a lot of great movies lately, yet none have touched me as profoundly as Wit, such a simple title for such a powerful film. In fact, I think everyone ought to see this underrated HBO film, especially those fond of poetry or having any experience with medicine and hospitals. Directed by Mike Nichols, Wit is based on the play by Margaret Edson, which very deservedly won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The always wonderful Emma Thompson gives one of her finest performances as Professor Vivian Bearing, a renowned scholar of metaphysical poetry. When diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, she has little choice but to submit to a rigorous experimental treatment prescribed by her Dr. Kelekian (a surprisingly straight-laced Christopher Lloyd). What she at first approached with cool confidence quickly becomes a constant hardship, and the treatment becomes more traumatic than the disease. While Bearing interacts with doctors and her sympathetic nurse (Audra McDonald), much of the film is her speaking directly to the camera, describing her passion for poetry, the trials of her chemotherapy, and her internal musings and doubts. When scenes of hospital room waiting start to drag, she makes note of the tedium and points out that as boring as these few scenes are for us, just consider how they feel for her. Thompson shaved her head for this role, and while Judy Davis stole Emmy and Golden Globe wins for the biopic Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and was indeed excellent, I think Thompson should have won something for her phenomenal performance here.

Bearing has spent her life dedicated to the work of John Donne, the master of 17th-century metaphysical poetry, full of conceits and metaphors so deep that lifetimes are spent unraveling their full meaning. I remember reading his poem “The Compass” (which is quoted in the film) in my literature class and being at first confused and then blown away by the depth of meaning, the kind of depth that appeals to English professors like Bearing and made Helene Hanff “dizzy for Donne” in 84 Charing Cross Road. One of the amazing things about Wit is that it is almost a cinematic version of a Donne poem, much more understandable on the surface but boasting ever more profound layers of wisdom the further one goes.

So many concepts are touched on with earnest emotion: her doctors’ cold scrutiny of her as “research” rather than a human being; the disconnect between studying the concept of death and confronting it in reality; the inconveniences and ineptitude of health care, which anyone who has endured a hospital stay has experienced to some extent; and the universal desire for pity, even when one has denied it to others. Of all the ideas discussed, empathy is perhaps the most prominent. McDonald plays the best kind of nurse, possessing a firm hand while demonstrating genuine concern for her patients, even in the details, in marked contrast to the ambitious but indifferent young doctor Jason (Jonathan M. Woodward, from the Firefly episode “The Message”). While the doctors are able to view Bearing’s degenerating condition with clinical dispassion, she admits that her life has reached the point of corny sentiment, when the most desired by someone in pain is the touch of human kindness.

Despite a sweet flashback with her father, Bearing is sadly bereft of friends and loved ones. Throughout her ordeal, she gets only one visitor, whose tenderness offers one of the most tear-jerking scenes in recent memory and places Bearing’s life and life in general within a subtle religious context. It’s also a reminder that, after a life dedicated to mature wisdom and the quest for knowledge and meaning, even the simplest of acts and themes can mean more. Wit is a masterpiece of insight and emotion, which as Bearing’s own professor states about Donne’s poetry, is not merely concerned with wit but truth.

Best line: (Vivian Bearing, near the end) “It came so quickly after taking so long.”

VC’s best line: (Dr. Jason) “What do you do for exercise?”   (Bearing) “Pace.”


Rank: Top 100-Worthy


© 2016 S. G. Liput

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