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WIT - With Emma Thompson and Directed by Mike Nichols
Feb 06 '03 (Updated Feb 06 '03)
The Bottom Line
An excellent movie if you can handle it.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
I find myself shaken by one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a very long time. I am grateful to Chad (Lemonlime) for referring me to it. He also suggested I read Mfunk75's review - and again I am grateful. Not only did I get to read a truly smashing review, but I encountered Mike's work which was impressive. Not that it is a great honor, but Mike immediately became a member of my WOT.
So I asked my daughter to go to Blockbusters and rent the movie. At first Jude was reluctant. She had already seen the movie on HBO, and found it too painful to watch again. However she did rent the VHS for me. It was not available on DVD, so I have no comments from the directors, actors or whoever to quote here. Jude watched part of it with me, broke into tears, and refused to stay for the rest of it.
One of the things Chad liked about the movie was the reference to a poem by John Donne, a fifteenth century poet that he shares my admiration for.
I must say I was not disappointed. This is not about the poet, or even too much about his work, although his famous "Death be not Proud" is elaborated on. It is a story about terminal illness - the advanced stages of ovarian cancer. You will be absolutely glued to your armchair, and you will think about it long after the movie is finished.
The director of the movie is Mike Nichols who also directed The Graduate. He did an amazing job in this one. The background music throughout the film is soft classical, and it works. It is never obtrusive, and always fits the mood.
Emma Thompson plays the lead - a strict mid-life Professor , Vivian Bearing. We see her at the doctor's office where she learns she is terminally ill with ovarian cancer. She is a professor of poetry, focusing I think, on John Donne. She takes the news of her eminent death calmly. She is tough, sophisticated, and very much in control. When the doctor, a character who was cold and too scientific to be likable, told her there was an alternate treatment that might save her if she was interested. He told her the treatment would be rough,and it was comparatively new. However if she was brave enough to try it she would be making a valuable donation to science. He wasn't kidding. From a strong woman in complete control of her life, Bearing became a numbered guinea pig for the Doctor's improvised tests. Christopher Lloyd played this doctor as a scientist who was more concerned with the results of his experimental tests then he was with his patient.
This movie was never released to the theater circuit, but went directly to HBO. This made it ineligible for the Academy Awards. I cannot understand how that could have happened. A performance so outstanding, a script so thought provoking, and the setting so familiar should have been seen by many more people. Also Emma Thompson should have won the Academy Award hands down. I knew she was acting, but her performance was so real I thought for a few startling minutes that it was actually happening.
There were a few scenes (flash backs) apart from the sterile hospital rooms. They were few, and served to make Bearing a person you could relate to on a personal basis.
The actual treatment time for us starts with Bearing in the hospital. Her first chemo has advanced to the point where she has lost her hair. She wears a jaunty baseball cap to cover her baldness. She is upbeat, and speaks to the viewers directly - as though she were thinking out loud. It was effective.
I didn't realize how sick she actually was until her violent vomiting shook her, and her baseball cap came off. She often quotes Donne's "Death be Not Proud," and we see how she came to understand the poem by a flashback to her time in college when it was explained by her professor, played by E.M.Ashford. Before the story ends, the old retired female professor will play an important role.
Bearing (played by Thompson) runs the course of continued treatments, called "full treatment": being treated as a number, and being displayed in all of her hospital gowned glory to be viewed by aspiring doctors. She progresses from dignity, to complete misery that cannot focus on anything but her unbearable pain.
One of the interns turns out to be a former student of hers. He, too, is intent on being an impersonal man of science, although now and then the humanitarian in him tries to emerge. He was played JasonPosner.
Bearing's nurse, played by Eileen Atkins, seems to be the only sympathetic hospital character. She is concerned about her suffering patient as a person and friend, and does what she can to make things a little better for her. She is the one who informs Bearing that she has the right to suspend treatment - and order the life saving methods to be stopped so that nature can take its course.
There are a few moments of humor. Bearing takes an interest in the young doctor who was a former student, even though he admits he took her course only because it was required for pre-med students to be well rounded. He told her she gave him an A minus. Once after being displayed so that student doctors could see the progression of her cancer, Bearing muttered, "I wish I had given him an A."
In the hospital, every new treatment would be delivered by a technician who would ask routine questions over and over again, starting with "What's your name?" This time, with a wry smile, Bearing announced "Lucy Countess of Bedford". This was a beloved patron for John Donne, and he wrote many elegies for her. The "Death be not proud" devine poem by Donne is one of the focal points for Bearing, although at the end when her iron will snapped, she no longer wanted to hear anything about John Donne.
Anyway, the technician didn't know what she was talking about, and it was a small joke Bearing shared with the viewers. Thompson's facial expressions showed pride, hidden amusement, chagrin, will power, dignity, humiliation, intelect,and unbelievable pain. Another little joke was when the sympathetic nurse replied to Bearing's question about some medication "Is it soporific?" the nurce answered, "I don't know about that, but it sure does make you sleepy." Until the very last, Bearing kept up her spirits with little jokes that she tried to share with us.
I won't tell you the actual end, because I do hope you rent this. I don't write good movie reviews, and I don't really like a lot of movies, but this one I have to say is great. The human spirit beats the scientific analysis every time. I don't know how the movie earned the name WIT. I hope somebody can enlighten me on that.
I can only say that I do hope you see it, and will let me know what you think. Again, I am grateful to Chad and to Mike.
PS Soporific means....something that will make you sleepy...haha...nurses aren't English majors ya know.