Wit: A poignant film

Film Review by Jim Bougie

Thursday, 11,2006

There are many TV shows, movies, and books about the medical establishment; nearly all of them are overemotional in treatment to some extent. Oftentimes in films the doctor is made out to be the hero, the life saving disciple of knowledge who single handedly plucks a patient from the brink of death and restores him (or her) to good health.

Wit is not one of those films. Directed by Mike Nichols and released by Warner in 2001 on HBO, the film is a poignant look at the experiences of a terminally ill cancer patient, Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), as she and her cancer are experimented upon by her physicians. The movie is an excellent adaptation from the stage, albeit a bit more melodramatic in order to reach an audience in an movie theatre. In our de-sensitized age, however, this forceful approach may be necessary in order to make audiences fully understand the plight of the film's victim. For this is exactly what the movie is about; a dying woman who was taken advantage of by the people she should have been able to trust.

Dr. Bearing, a fairly young professor of 17th century poetry, is diagnosed by Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) as having Stage IV ovarian cancer in the beginning of the film. At his insistence, she agrees to an aggressive chemotherapy regimen the intent of which is, she is told, to stop the spread of her cancer. The rest of the film documents Vivian's existence in the hospital.

We see how quickly she is de-humanized by her physicians, who poke and prod her every morning during grand rounds as if she were a piece of meat. We feel Dr. Bearing's humiliation at being examined by a former student more interested in his research than in saving lives; Jason Posner (Jonathan Woodward), the "villain" of the film. The only real vestige of emotional support from the medical staff comes from her RN, Susie (Audra McDonald), who speaks frankly with Vivian about a DNR near the end of the movie. This scene is perhaps the most heart wrenching of all, a final disgrace to an already abused woman.

The acting in Wit is really top notch. Emma Thompson delivers a really incredible performance, being both icy and vulnerable at the same time, letting the viewer come close to her but not too close; we are never really forced to fully empathize with Vivian, a point underscored by a flashback scene involving Professor Bearing's rather callous treatment of a student. Jonathan Woodward as Jason also delivers a good performance, smartly playing the role of the smug newly-minted doctor. Unlike with Vivian, we are prodded along throughout the film to hate Jason, a bit more so than in the play. He is easy to hate regardless, for who of us would like to have him as our doctor?

Various cinematic techniques also add to the flavor of the film and enhance the viewing experience. Camera angles are used to show Vivian as continually shrinking throughout the film. First, she is on equal footing with Kelekian, then gradually begins to waste away from the chemotherapy. She is no longer on equal footing with her doctors, instead she can only passively look UP at them from her bed as they probe her abdomen and ask their incessant "How are you feeling today?"s. The camera often pans out to show her cold, sterile surroundings, which almost seern to swallow her up by the end of the film.

These cold surroundings form the majority of the film's mise-en-scene. Colors in the scenes gradually disappear until we are left with little more than grays and blues by the end. These drab hospital scenes are also juxtaposed with Vivian's flashbacks of her time in the University, where the colors suddenly turn to soft earth tones with the wood paneling, the soft lighting, the green grass she passes on her way to the library. Then suddenly we are thrust back into the world of gray lifelessness, enhancing the effect that the hospital setting has on us because we are simply not allowed to really get used to it.

This is not a movie destined for true mass appeal. Most people today see movies as a form of escapism and not as instructional material, which is exactly what Wit is. Specifically, it is a mini-instruction book on patient care that should be mandatory viewing for all medical personnel. Perhaps there would be fewer Jasons and Kelekians because of it.

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Page Last Updated: 4 June 2006.