Last month in D.C., the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure event was held in support of breast cancer. On Saturday, October 29, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, part of the American Cancer Society, will be having another walk in the city for Breast Cancer Awareness month. After a good walk, you deserve an equally good movie. Searching the Internet Movie Database, there is a shocking and sadly short supply of quality films about a subject that kills around 40,000 people every year. Most films use the issue as a plot device. Other films that deal seriously with the subject, are quite frankly, not that good. It’s a wonder that most topical films about disease tend toward melodrama and completely miss the mark of what it’s like to live with (or around) the disease. There may not be a great film about breast cancer, but Wit (2001) is the best film about living with disease ever made.
The film’s heroine Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) does not have breast cancer, but ovarian cancer. “Advanced metastatic ovarian cancer,” her Oncologist Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) says, to be precise. Her cancer wasn’t caught in its first stages, and in describing it in medical terms, her doctor refers to it as an “insidious adenocarcinoma.” She stops him and questions his use of “insidious.” In his world of medicinal jargon, “insidious means undetectable at an early stage,” in hers, the idiom of English literature, “insidious means treacherous.” Her riposte stakes out her claim. She is the chief consulate of language, and the good doctor had better not encroach upon her doctorate’s entitlement.
Wit, based on the play of the same name by Margaret Edson, follows Vivian through her hospital stays as she undergoes a battery of tests while trying an experimental combination of drugs during her chemotherapy. The film is essentially about death and coming to terms with it. Vivian decided to forego any personal attachments in life and concentrate on her work, the study of 17th century metaphysical poetry; especially John Donne, whose “Holy Sonnet X” is used in an abridged version throughout the film, much in the same way that Solaris (2002) used Thomas’ “And death shall have no dominion”.
The film is a metaphysical study, brought about largely through the patient-doctor relationship. Kelekian and his fellow Jason (Jonathan M. Woodward) see Vivian as a case study, one that will perhaps propel their careers and provide them with more research data. This becomes harder and harder to bear for Vivian as she begins to see the parallel: “Once, I did the teaching. Now, I am taught.” She remembers how she did not give her students the care and humanity she is now desperate for. Jason, a former student of hers, remembers as well, but is too selfish to offer sympathy. He also figures she is tough enough to withstand the treatment, recalling her harsh demeanor.
The only one who does provide Vivian with an ounce of humanity is Susie (Audra McDonald), her nurse, who provides her with solace she can attain nowhere else. Aside from the clever dissertation about the doctor-patient-nurse relationship, Wit is still concerned with the metaphysical. Please know going in that this is a very sad film, and if you’ve been around disease, it can become unwatchable.
Vivian lives for her anatomization of metaphysical poetry with the same zest her doctors get for anatomizing her. Her life’s work, her life’s study, has been a critical deconstruction of life and death. She remarks, “I thought that being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see now that I have been found out.” Studying death with cold detachment, probably makes it easier for us deal with it. As if to know more about it will make it easier when death is upon us.
Wit feels like a play, but has the emotional resonance that other play-to-movie translations lack. Mike Nichols’ direction sets the viewer directly in the environment, making Vivian’s breaking of the fourth wall feel comfortable. The script is at once sad, funny and well, witty.
An HBO original film, Wit is available on DVD. The homepage for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer can be found here. The film has also known to be up on YouTube in parts, so check there if you cannot find the film.