“Wit” was originally a one-act drama written for the stage by American playwright Margaret Edson. It was first performed in Costa Mesa, California in 1995, opened in New York in 1998, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, giving Ms. Edson the distinction of receiving a Pulitzer Prize for her first (and so far, only) play. In 2001, Mike Nichols directed this scrupulously faithful adaptation starring Emma Thompson for HBO. It was never released theatrically, but is available through Netflix and on DVD.
“Wit” tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a 48-year-old professor of 17th century English literature who has been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Though her prognosis is never anything but grim, Vivian is not about to give up without a fight, and agrees to undergo the most aggressive treatment available despite the attendant, pernicious side effects.
Throughout the film, Vivian shares her thoughts and observations directly with the viewing audience, and quickly engages our sympathy and affection. As the story unfolds, we feel more and more like she is one of our own family, and that decisions that affect her affect us also.
A major theme throughout the movie is the unconscionable lack of empathy shown by the medical professionals responsible for Vivian’s care. “Wit” is unsparingly frank in its portrayal of how grueling her treatments are, but her two doctors, Kelekian and Posner, see her as little more than a research subject upon whom they can test the most recent treatment modality.
The late Roger Ebert was a faithful blogger, and in July 2008 he touched on a related theme in a candid, heartfelt piece about this movie, which you can read in its entirety here. He wrote, “…Since then, I have had cancer, and had all too many hours, days and weeks of hospital routine robbing me of my dignity.”
Although “Wit” is starkly realistic in its portrayal of Vivian’s struggle with her illness, there are wonderful, unexpected touches of humor throughout. At one of the low points in her treatment, Vivian observes, “If I did actually barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline.” There are also moments when Vivian reflects upon her career as an academic, and comes to regret those occasions when she was needlessly rigid with her students.
Emma Thompson delivers an exceptionally compelling performance as Vivian Bearing, in which we see both Vivian’s strength and vulnerability in clear relief. Christopher Lloyd and Jonathan M. Woodward are also convincing as her less than sympathetic doctors. Audra McDonald’s performance as Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan – the one medical professional in the film with a heart for her patients – provides a welcome counterpoint to their indifference.
“Wit” belongs on everyone’s list of must-see movies. It reminds us that life is at best an uncertain proposition, and that, as Vivian discovers, “Now is the time for kindness.”