First of all, be advised, this is a tough film to watch; but also know that if you choose to do so, you will be rewarded with an experience that is invaluable and unforgettable, and in ways that transcend mere cinematic satisfaction. There is no mystery here, no secrets nor allegories. Indeed, the subject matter is made succinctly evident in the first words you hear, spoken by Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) to Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson): `You have cancer.' And so begins `Wit,' directed by Mike Nichols, a film that will claim you emotionally and take you to a place of eternal night-- a region, in fact, wherein even the most intrepid of body and spirit fear to tread. It puts you in a dark room with that thing in the closet and keeps you there; and there is no way out. And once inside, it forces you to face your worst fears, albeit vicariously, in a way that invites some serious reflection upon mortality and the profundity of life.
Vivian Bearing is a professor of English Literature, specializing in the work of Seventeenth Century poet John Donne. Hers is a scholarly life, and she is secure with her place in it; not yet fifty, she has achieved a level of comfort with herself, as well as her work, especially in the class she teaches on Donne. With her students she is a demanding taskmaster and does not suffer fools, nor students who opt for more immediate pleasures over Donne, refusing to accept youthful zeal as an excuse for academic impropriety. In her classroom, she insists that those in attendance rise to her level; she does not stoop to conquer.
Then, with the words of Dr. Kelekian, her world abruptly changes. At first, wrapped in intellectual armor, she finds at least some comfort and respite in her beloved Donne, but she soon finds that the pursuits of the mind, even leavened with a healthy ego, attain a diminished capacity within the environs of a ravaging disease. The eternity of the hospital affords her much time for reflection, and as her illness progresses she undergoes a change in perspectives; taking stock, she considers such things as the aloof manner she affected that served no purpose other than to distance her from her students. And she thinks about it now, not with regret, but differently; her intellectual acumen no longer separates her from her students, nor affords her a lofty perch from which she may sit in judgment. She understands, at last, that she is not so different from them after all. For as she discovers to her considerable dismay-- pain is the great equalizer.
Written by Nichols and Thompson, the screenplay is based on the play by Margaret Edson. The story unfolds like a living diary, as Vivian addresses the viewer directly, with a descriptive narrative that leaves little to the imagination. Graphically real and unrelenting, it is a riveting chronicle that will hold you in thrall from beginning to end and beyond-- because this experience does not end when the screen goes dark; it's something that is going to be with you for a long time afterwards, so be prepared. And the reason this will linger in your memory is that it's a contemplation of a reality that is horrendous beyond imagination. This is that thing that always happens to someone else, but never to `me,' and to be put in the room with someone to whom the unthinkable has happened-- to be up close and personal with it-- is emotionally devastating. This is a true horror story beyond anything Stephen King could write, because this is `real.' What happens to Vivian Bearing is something that happens to people all the time, and there has never been a film before or since that will put you more in touch with what it feels like, from the incredulity born at the moment of diagnosis to the acceptance of the reality of it. And it has nothing to do with courage; it is not about that at all. It's about knowing that you are going to have to do this thing that you least in the whole world want to do-- and that you have no choice in the matter.
This film is a veritable showcase for the incredible talent of Emma Thompson, who gives a performance that is so remarkable there are not enough superlatives to do it justice. Ineligible for Oscar consideration as this film was made for television (HBO), her performance nevertheless is as Oscar worthy as they come (even more impressive than her Oscar winning performance as Margaret in `Howard's End,' which was nothing less than a study in perfection). As Vivian Bearing, Thompson is absolutely mesmerizing-- you simply cannot take your eyes off of her for even a moment. There are times when you want to look away, to avert your eyes because it's just too painful to watch, but you can't. Once you begin this journey you are bound to her for better or worse. You suffer with her through the physical pain, as well as through the base indignities to which she is subjected as a matter of course by the doctors and care givers who simply do not respond to the humanity of the person in their care; a sad commentary, to be sure, but so true.
What really marks Thompson's performance as so extraordinary, however, is the fact that as you watch the drama unfold, you forget this is an actor playing a role; rather, this is a very real person you are watching-- a person named Vivian Bearing who is dying of cancer.
The supporting cast includes Eileen Atkins (E.M. Ashford), Audra McDonald (Susie), Jonathan M. Woodward (Jason) and Harold Pinter (Vivian's Father). An emotionally absorbing drama that redefines empathy and compassion, `Wit' will make you feel alive like never before, and thankful for each and every day that you wake up healthy. It's a film that will enrich your life. 10/10.
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