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Few if any films deal with the process of death and dying with quite such clarity, simplicity, and eloquence as Wit, a film made for American television.
Emma Thompson, a renaissance woman if ever there was one, adapted the original play for the screen and takes the leading role of Dr Vivian Bearing. Her title is not medical but academic: she teaches metaphysical poetry at an American university and has a reputation of being both brilliant and unforgiving to students who fall short of her high standards.
The entire film takes place in hospital, from the moment when she is told that she has a severe form of cancer by the ever ebullient Dr Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd), through to the closing shot as the camera retreats from the room where Dr Bearing has wrestled with death and succumbed.
On the course I run at the University of Bristol, called “Doctors in the movies,” this is the film that I show in its entirety to the medical students, and they are invariably astonished and moved by its power and tenderness. We are so used to films that live on melodrama, cheap emotion, and obvious insights that to be faced with something as subtle and delicate as this is almost overwhelming; the tears we shed have been earned, not forced.
Anyone working in the medical world can learn a great deal from Wit. There are no villains, yet the brash Kelekian and his intern sidekick Jason epitomise a certain male obtuseness, forever focused on some abstract goal, making them unable to see the human being lying in front of them. A particularly excruciating scene involves Jason giving Dr Bearing a gynaecological examination with a degree of awkwardness, insensitivity, and thoughtlessness that would make any medical student vow never to display such a lack of care. Jason is a bright young man with a shining future ahead, but for him, as for Kelekian, the patient is a means to an end, not a person. Susie, though—Bearing's nurse—is the stuff that dreams are made of; the scene in which she and Vivian sit and suck ice lollies could have been saccharine but is instead truly moving.
And at the centre of it all is Emma Thompson. The reason that the film is so effective is in the title—it is a film of great wit. Not in the sense that it is stuffed with Wildean witticisms, but because it has a trenchant and sardonic intelligence that is unusual, to say the least. The technique of voiceover commentary is so often used to cover up a film's failings, but here it allows us to bear witness to Bearing's experiences. She expresses her frustration at the hospital's mechanistic approach, at the boredom of endless hours of doing nothing, at the physical suffering she endures. Above all, the film allows us to see the world from the perspective of the patient, one who is intelligent enough to know that its unkindnesses are not deliberate. When you watch this film you consider how you would behave if you were the doctor, the intern, the nurse, or the patient. And you can't ask much more of a film than that it should make you both think and feel.