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Wit (2001)

Starring Emma Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Atkins, Audra McDonald,
Jonathan M. Woodward, Harold Pinter

Directed by Mike Nichols

Screenplay by Emma Thompson & Mike Nichols

Based on the play by Margaret Edson

HBO Films

Rated PG-13

Nursing rating 3 1/2 stars

Rating guide:
excellent = 4 stars; good = 3 stars;
fair = 2 stars, poor = 1 star

Artistic rating 4 stars

Wit DVD coverEmma Thompson and Mike Nichols' adaptation of Margaret Edson's intellectual anti-intellectual play "Wit," which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, movingly explores a tough but emotionally homeless scholar's confrontation with a life-threatening illness. At the same time, it ruthlessly deconstructs the modern medical research establishment. This excellent film is driven by Edson's sharp dialogue, Nichols' controlled direction and Thompson's riveting, dead-on portrayal of the scholar, with fine supporting performances by the other actors, including a brief appearance by playwright Harold Pinter as her father.

English Professor Vivian Bearing (Thompson) is an uncompromising authority on 17th Century English poetry, especially that of John Donne, whose Holy Sonnet X ("Death, be not proud...") figures heavily in the film, an obvious device that could be tiresome in the hands of lesser artists. At age 48, Vivian is diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer by prominent physician Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd), who gets her to agree to aggressive, debilitating chemotherapy that will serve his research agenda by appealing to their common commitment to rigorous scholarly discipline. The stoic Vivian bears this therapy and degrading study by Kelekian's team, including her own former student Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward). Posner is now a bright research fellow who refers to clinicians as "troglodytes" and whose bludgeoning insensitivity seems to amuse Vivian more than it pains her, at least for a while. Vivian is asked "how are you feeling today?" so frequently and mechanically that it loses all meaning, and she remarks that she's a bit sorry she won't be able to hear herself being asked the question after she has just died. She engages in piercing monologue to the camera, applying the analytical skills she honed as a scholar to her life, her condition and the health care system she confronts. This system ironically sacrifices the well-being of individual patients, not necessarily with their full consent, for the research and professional interests of the physicians who appear to control it--a way of increasing knowledge at a considerable human cost which seems familiar to Vivian. But as her condition grows worse and her fear increases, Vivian starts to question her assumptions about what matters in life.

Unlike much film and television work of recent decades, "Wit" has no interest in deifying physicians, and physicians who see it may object to the blatant disregard for patient well-being and smarty-pants self-indulgence displayed by the research physician characters. The one health care professional who actually cares for Vivian in any real sense is her primary care nurse Susie Monahan, played by Broadway actress and singer Audra McDonald. Susie, who is not an intellectual, simply wants to provide Vivian with health care that is consistent with her professional obligations and with basic human decency, a goal which brings her into increasing conflict with the physicians pushing Vivian's chemotherapy. Despite their differences, the two women form a bond that has important consequences for the apparently friendless Vivian's emotional and physical health. McDonald's performance is steady and subtle, arguably a bit too subtle, but she conveys a fiery core when patient advocacy demands it. The script does not call for Susie to display a great deal of substantive knowledge, and a few other aspects of the film's portrayal of nursing could probably have been improved. Nevertheless, Susie is one of the most powerful feature film portrayals of what a good modern nurse actually does--an added incentive to see a movie that every health care professional should see anyway.

Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed January 5, 2003

FAQ: How can I see "Wit"? You can get a free copy of "Wit when you become a member of The Truth About Nursing at the $100 level.

You can also buy "Wit" on DVD. We have also seen "Wit" for rent at Hollywood Video stores. Find one near you.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.


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