Emma Thompson delivers the performance of her life in Wit, a film released in 2001.
Although the story line goes to dramatic extremes, Emma’s performance rings painfully true, with lines that are painful but comically brilliant…
Emma’s character lies in a hospital bed while undergoing chemotherapy. She delivers an affecting monologue as a stage 4 cancer victim, staring death in the face. Completely bald, with sickly make-up and an ugly hospital gown, she reflects on her career, the values she lived by, and how she chose to interact with other people in her life. Has she made the right choices?
Emma plays a demanding English professor who specializes in 17th century metaphysical poetry. She recites passages from John Donne (“Death be not proud”) while musing on life, interactions with students, and how to prepare her own end-of-life story.
Her delivery of Donne’s poetry is delicate, highly nuanced and affecting. Her analysis of his work assumes a well-educated audience with an extensive vocabulary. (This film is so unlike Hollywood-style, lowest-common-denominator derivative plots!)
Learning How to Suffer
Emma’s character has been a noted scholar, a teacher whose uncompromising standards far exceed most college students’ abilities or motivations. She prizes intellectual rigor and hard work, with no sympathy for students who do not understand the subject matter, or who fail to deliver assignments on time. There’s a painful scene where she humiliates a football player who has no clue what this poetry is all about…
As the film unfolds, the shoe is now on the other foot: Emma’s character must confront what it feels like to be dependent upon driven, demanding researchers with no compassion for their human subjects. To dramatize this role-reversal theme, one of her former students will play a key role in her treatment.
The film opens with the heart-rending scene when she learns that she has stage 4 ovarian cancer. The doctor informs her while using dense, incomprehensible medical jargon. She tries to parse his meaning, translating from the Latin roots of words that she knows… (The doctor’s delivery signals the audience to expect that research demands will trump patient care/caring, a theme that continues throughout Wit.)
Because there are no proven alternatives, the doctor persuades her to participate in a research program, one that entails a highly aggressive form of chemotherapy, with well-known and quite horrible side-effects. He gets her to sign the release form without making sure she understands the side-effects that she may encounter (such as liver necrosis.) You later discover that the researchers are simply trying to discover how many rounds of therapy the patient can endure before death wins the battle…
During this key scene and throughout the treatment régime, the oncologist and his ambitious research assistant display a ruthless lack of empathy for what terminal cancer means to the patient. They do not want to hear about the suffering their research trial is inflicting upon her — they insist on continuing treatment well past the point when it’s obvious to everyone that the aggressive chemo cannot save her life.
Wit is a one-sided story, told from the point-of-view of the patient undergoing a cancer treatment program at a research institute. Its characters are mono-dimensional — task-focused research doctors unable to display compassion or deal effectively with a patient’s emotional reality.
I’d like to imagine that Emma’s story is unusual — that most hospitals (including research centers or teaching hospitals) employ people who are compassionate, able to engage with patients’ feelings when they must deliver painful or life-threatening news.
Thankfully, Emma’s character is cared for by Suzie, a nurse who takes time to interact with her patient. Suzie has the strength to acknowledge and respond to Emma’s suffering. She knows how to celebrate those small moments worth cherishing.
Emma’s interactions with Suzie and a deathbed scene with her mentor (former academic advisor) provide the solitary notes of loving kindness in this tragi-comic film.
It does not need to be that way.
My niece died two years ago at age 21, after a 2‑year bout with an aggressive nerve sheath cancer. My niece’s situation was the polar opposite of what Emma’s character faced. My niece was blessed with a loving family; cared for by an empathetic medical staff that went out of their way to celebrate her life, death and all the things that made my niece so special.
In the decade that has passed since Wit was released, I hope that the medical community has become more skilled at finding the right balance between professionalism and compassion. It is, as the film so deftly notes, a matter of life and death.