20 January 2010


An absolutely breathtaking film. You would think that a made for tv movie about a woman with cancer would be absolute dreck, but oh my, how incorrect you'd be. If it weren't for the fact that it was directed by Mike Nichols and stars Emma Thompson, it never would have made it into the ol' queue, and if it weren't for the fact that she plays an English professor, it probably would have languished at the bottom for years. I can't really say what inspired me to move it up, but I'm so glad I did.

Wit is, as mentioned, a film about an English professor - an expert in poetry, particularly John Donne - who is slowly dying of ovarian cancer. The film focuses mostly on her treatment, with occasional lapses into the realms of memory. What makes it an incredible film is the way it brings together poetry, analysis, and mortality, with a dose of simple humanity for good measure. Thompson plays a highly self-disciplined academic who has more time for poetry than people. The movie provides some absolutely gorgeous scenes of literary interpretation, explaining why it matters whether or not Donne used a comma in certain places, and, though it does contrast his abstract reflections on death with an actual woman's experience of approaching it, it thankfully never claims that one needs a "human touch" to understand poetry, or any sort of dreck like that. Though Thompson does regret, at moments, her severity or seclusion, it's never in a way that diminishes her magnificent accomplishments or implies that she has led her life incorrectly. As a portrayal of an English professor, it's a beautiful tribute.

A very nice contrast to this is the character of one of her doctors, a research fellow at the hospital, who has the same intellectual appreciation for cancer that Thompson has for poetry. This leads to some really incredible scenes where he describes cancer cells with loving appreciation to a woman who is wasting away because of them. Yet again, while the movie chastises him for being a bit too cold, it doesn't, I think, demonize him. In other words, it's another example of how the film manages to treat issues that have been so throughly mutilated by cliches that one forgets that they're actually interesting in a way that reminds the viewers that they matter.

Indeed, perhaps the most incredible aspect of the movie is the way in which it portrays human warmth and companionship, particularly through the character of the nurse. There's a scene where she rubs lotion on the unconscious patient's hands that brought tears to my eyes. She represents the humanitarian impulse of medicine, and likewise serves as a counterpoint to the young research fellow, though again, not in a bad way - as she herself puts it, people like him are necessary to the field of medicine. But so are people like her.

Finally, the poetry - literature itself, really - is given such wonderful honors in the film. Beautifully recited at various moments - as reflection, as comfort, and inspiration - the film wonderfully brings to light the power of language, be it in the form of Donne's poetry or in the form of the Runaway Bunny. A wonderful complement to this comes in the music - the use of Arvö Part in the soundtrack is absolutely brilliant.

I really can't recommend the movie enough. I sobbed like a child, but I loved it.

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