Wit: On the borders of decency

Film review by Adrien Sullivan.

Thursday, 11, 2006

Margaret Edison's screenplay Wit (adapted for the screen by Emma Thompson) is a clash between the realities of cold, hard objective science and research, and the delicacies of life and emotion embodied in humanity. Vivian Bearing (played by Emma Thompson) serves as the character through which this struggle is fought out. The film explores the world of medicine and patient treatment from three different angles: the patient, the medical staff, and finally, from a philosophical point of view, which is offered to us through the writings of John Donne.

Mike Nichols directs the film Wit from the first person perspective of the patient Vivian Bearing, who is diagnosed with stage 4 terminal ovarian cancer. We see right from the beginning that Dr. Kelekian (played by Christopher Lloyd) informs Dr. Bearing of her condition, not with the concern and consolation one would expect from a doctor when being confronted with the news of a mortal illness, but rather the tone of pure objectivity. Dr Kelekian presents her condition as if it were in a text book taught to students, making it a point to be thorough first, and compassionate second. Nichols guides us through the barrage of tests and exams that Dr. Bearing is subjected to, exposing us to the impersonal nature with which Jason (Jonathan M.Woodward) and other medical staff interact with her. They ask Dr. Bearing how she is feeling, expecting nothing more than a single word response of "fine" as a justifiable doctor-patient relationship. Dr. Bearing, of strong mind, and fiercely independent takes on the challenge of full dose treatments, even when the nursing staff feel that it may be more than her body can take. She prided herself on her strong will and tough mind, and in battling her illness she was no different.

As Dr. Bearing's illness progresses though, we begin to see changes in her attitude towards other people, and herself. No longer is she steadfast in her independence. She allows Susie (Audra McDonald), the resident nurse to join her in a popsicle and conversation. She also begins to evaluate the personal decisions she has made in how she treated other people-students, friends, colleagues- in her life. Ultimately, despite all of her accumulated knowledge that she had acquired and used to shield herself, she concedes to the fundamental elements and basic needs of humanity. Dr. Bearing seeks kindness, and it is here we see the objectivity of the doctors treatment in dealing with her. Aside from an occasional act of kindness from the nurse, Nichols intentionally keeps the rest of the medical staff distant, detached, and disinterested in Dr. Bearing on a personal level.

The medical staff in "Wit" was delicately positioned on the border of decency in dealing with their patient. Nichols is careful not to give us the sense that Dr. Bearing is being abused or mistreated, but rather that she is being neglected, physically, mentally, and emotionally as a patient under their care. Most disappointing is the fact that Dr. Kelekian, with all his experience and expertise, still shares the mindset of research first, a patient second. Not once does he appear to have Vivian Bearing's best interests at heart, and of course his subordinates follow suit. The intent on the part of Nichols is clear to show that a lack of training and knowledge in the humanities area for medical students leaves many of them unable to grapple, appreciate, and handle the challenges of human interaction on a day to day basis. Therefore, doctors find themselves unable...or unwilling to cater to these more subtle patient needs, and they begin to view them as obstacles, standing in the way of research, and eventually ignore these needs altogether.

With terminal illnesses, one would expect doctors, or other trained hospital staff to help a patient deal with the prospect of death, and help them cope the best they can. We don't see any of this in Wit, save one brief scene with the resident nurse, in which she is explaining the options to Dr. Bearing as to whether or not she wished to be resuscitated if her heart stopped beating. The absence of a friend, companion, or even trained staff member to help her deal with these final psychological needs became a void. Dr. Bearing tried to fill this void with the comforting words of John Donne and his take on the brevity of death, and its permanent passing rather than the person who dies. As she moves closer to her own death, the film shows her growing more and more desperate to find other, more personal and perhaps tangible things to put her mind at ease. We find her towards the end of the film becoming restless, unable to quell her mind from endless thinking.

It is not until the end we are reminded of Dr. Bearing's humanity, where an old professor amd Vivian's one friend, E. M. Ashford (brilliantly played by Eileen Atkins) comes to visit, and read to the now morbid Dr. Bearing. We are reminded of how lacking personal contact had been for the ailing professor up to this point, through the entire ordeal, when the professor sits with Dr. Bearing and holds her close as if a child, reading her to sleep. This scene is sharply juxtaposed with the following scene, in which research and humanity come to a dramatic showdown. Jason, the fresh medical student realizes that Dr. Bearing has passed, and calls a code blue, with full knowledge of her DNR status. It is therefore inferred that he did this solely in the name of research, with complete disregard for the person recently departed. The resident nurse, having built a casual relationship with Dr. Bearing, has grown attached enough at this point to her patient to ensure that her final wishes are carried out, and the code not performed, but even at this critical moment, her actions seem out of respect, and not out of true compassion.

The use of the poetry of Donne reinforces the inadequacy of the treatment of Dr Bearing. There is irony here. In her life she too had ignored the human needs of her students, and instead of studying the content of Donne's poems, had emphasized technique. Dr Bearing had been afraid of confronting life because life and relationships are hard to manage. Now she finds others refusing to see her. The depth of anguish over death we see in Donne is ignored in the scientific treatment of a disease instead of a human being.

The film does an excellent job of using subtlety and satire to illustrate some of the problems we find today in hospitals and doctors. While many of us will never face a situation as dire as Dr. Bearing, there may come a time when we depend on doctors to possess the qualities that we found lacking in a worst case scenario of a terminally ill patient.

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Page Last Updated: 4 June 2006.