Had it premiered in theaters, Wit would have contended for Oscars. Directed by Mike Nichols and adapted by Nichols and star Emma Thompson from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, it premiered on the HBO network on March 24, 2001, and is available on DVD. It is as perfect a film on the subject of death as you will see.
Thompson stars as Vivian Bearing, a professor of English literature, especially the metaphysical poetry of Seventeenth Century English writer John Donne, whose work tangled life and death into confounding metaphysical puzzles. In the first scene, Vivian receives a diagnosis from oncologist Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd, icily effective): advanced metastatic ovarian cancer — stage four, and “there is no stage five.” The entire scene is shot in extreme closeup; the world drops away, leaving us only with the doctor, the patient, and a cacophonous stream of medical jargon to which Vivian nods, absorbing little. The scene cuts back and forth between the actors, who address the camera. They are not seen in the same shot; they occupy different worlds.
The setup is clear: Vivian, who has spent her career studying death in the abstract, will confront her mortality. It’s a simple premise with an even simpler narrative — Vivian describes the progress of her disease directly to the audience — but the extraordinary script exposes fundamental conflicts between knowledge and compassion, study and understanding, treatment and care. We watch as Vivian’s intellect — her wit — begins to fail her. Where once she endeavored to understand the difference between a comma and a semicolon in a line of verse, she now longs only to be spoken to as if she’s in the room.
The film is perceptive about hospital procedures and finds both comedy and tragedy in their indignities. A seemingly insignificant but memorable scene features an impatient lab technician who complains about Vivian’s missing wheelchair. “Don’t inconvenience yourself on my behalf,” says Vivian. We can guess the technician has had a bad day. But we can be sure Vivian has had a worse one.
In a later scene, Dr. Kelekian stampedes into her room with a group of research fellows. The camera observes closely, comically as her naked abdomen is poked and prodded by the various strangers’ hands. We observe also a clashing of egos; the fellows jockey for position and sneer their resentment at a sycophantic teacher’s pet. Vivian is amused. So are we. Such a violation of her physical space, while petty rivalries ensue overhead, is so absurd that we can only laugh.
Jonathan M. Woodward gives a wonderfully aloof performance as Dr. Jason Posner, who is stupid in the way only smart people can be. His eyes light up when he discusses the molecular intricacies of cancer, the way perhaps Vivian thrilled at Donne’s death musings, but he strains at such basic pleasantries as, “How are you feeling today?” — bedside manner through gritted teeth. There is a late scene that shows him at his most emotional: observing Vivian’s suffering during a late stage of her disease, he appears silently stricken and then walks away like a frightened child. He’s a crackerjack with biology, but illiterate when it comes to human beings.
Posner is shown in contrast to Vivian’s primary nurse, Susie Monahan (Audra McDonald, bringing great warmth), who is less intellectually formidable than her colleagues or patient but demonstrates greater emotional intelligence, which proves to be the most valued asset. Scenes between Susie and Vivian are the purest, eschewing the philosophical back flips of poetry and the dehumanizing objectification of medical terms. They discuss treatment options in basic terms, ending in three of the most heartbreaking and direct words of the film: “Let it stop.”
But I think I do the film a disservice by describing it in terms of its dualities: the caring nurse versus the heartless researchers, emotional connection versus soulless intellectualism. You might think that the lesson is to throw away your theories and accept only compassion, but it is more nuanced than that. The point is that a lesson is beside the point, that death is an indomitable mystery but trying to understand it is a game for the living, not the dying. Vivian was once fascinated by the subject of death, but the experience of it is altogether different; it’s boredom, it’s degradation, it’s maudlin outpourings of undignified emotions. We begin the film thinking, as Vivian does, but we end it feeling.
This is demonstrated by the film’s very best scene, slow and patient in its rhythm, punctuated by a plaintive piano on the soundtrack. Vivian’s mentor, E.M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins), visits her in the hospital — her only visitor. She reads to Vivian from a children’s book: The Runaway Bunny, an “allegory of the soul” that is more comforting in its simple wisdom than any of Donne’s ruminations on mortality. When it’s over, Nichols allows time to hang. Ashford exits, the camera recedes, and we feel, deeply and completely, a profound loss.
The performance of Thompson stands among the best I’ve seen. Shown frequently in closeup for long, uninterrupted shots, she often pauses, caught unexpectedly by a bout of nausea or pain or a feeling of dread that breaks past her academic defenses. Her face is nakedly expressive and conveys emotions so deep it’s hard to put words to them. Note the flashback to her childhood; marvel at the subtle ache in her eyes as she surrenders a tear to the memory. In a film about words, it’s often the silence that speaks most eloquently.