Wit (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) breaks the news to her patient, Dr. Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), a professor of seventeenth century poetry, that she has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. It is the type of cancer that has gone undetected during its first three stages—the fourth stage being so aggressive that the patient’s only hope is so undergo eight cycles of experimental chemotherapy. There is no fifth stage. Dr. Bearing agrees to battle the cancer.

Based on the play by Margaret Edson, “Wit” is a highly intelligent, moving, and searing portrait of what cancer really is instead of what most people think it is. More specifically, what the disease and the treatment do to the body—how the process is ugly and messy, how it can manage to strip away one’s dignity. When I hear that people are brave for trying to fight or overcoming cancer, I am not sure I buy it completely. This film shows that maybe people with cancer face the disease only because they do not have a choice.

Right from the very first scene, the direction by Mike Nichols is confident and clinical. The first shot is the close-up of a doctor with bad news; the second shot is the patient absorbing the grim diagnosis—in a series of close-ups we learn how they handle themselves in a difficult situation. It engages the mind. The second scene is equally powerful: a bald woman, Dr. Bearing, in a hospital gown speaking directly to camera. We know not many details about the woman with no hair but we immediately learn of her resolve. This is no ordinary Lifetime movie about a cancer patient.

I admire movies that take their time presenting details. Here, they are not afraid to use big words, phrases, and ideas—whether it be an aspect of poetry or literature or medical terminologies. Scenes that take place in the hospital are blended with scenes that take place in a university—a portrait of dying woman and a portrait of a woman in her prime—just as art is melded with science. The contrasting elements presented on screen never come off pretentious because the rhythm of language and passions of the characters on screen are constantly on the forefront: Though ideas and concepts are alive and well just underneath the epithelium, it embodies a humanistic approach first and foremost.

Standout scenes involve interactions between tough as nails Dr. Bearing and a physician-scientist in the fellowship stage of his career named Dr. Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward). Dr. Posner—very ambitious, smart, and focused—was Dr. Bearing’s student at one point even though his major was biochemistry. His goal was to take the three most difficult classes the campus had to offer and Dr. Bearing’s class happened to be one of them. Dr. Posner, without meaning malfeasance, treats his patient like a lab rat. The former student-teacher’s scenes are so uncomfortable that even though I wanted to admire Dr. Posner for his intelligence and drive, his bedside manner is so poor, I wondered why he even bothered to choose medicine as a career.

At one point, a nurse, Susie (Audra McDoland), asks Jason why he chose to specialize in cancer. He describes the disease as “awesome,” but his reasoning as to why it is such a fascinating disease to devote one’s life to study and learn from, I was reminded of why I decided to study cancer biology. The truth is, cancer is an awesome disease. I would even go as far to say that it is a smart disease—equipped with multiple ways, many of which I am convinced are still undiscovered, to overcome various therapeutics.

Lastly, “Wit” touched my very core. The way Susie is not afraid to touch Dr. Bearing’s body at its most fearful and most frail reminded me of the time when my grandfather was dying of cancer. I was moved to tears because it reminded me how much I regret not looking at my grandpa in eyes more often, not hugging him more tightly, not talking to him about the details that really matter about myself. In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t mature enough at the time or that his mortality had not fully sunk in. Or maybe I was just afraid.

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