When a movie hurts too much
by Roger Ebert, July 3, 2008
The experience with "Wit" was a revelation. Yes, movies can be immediate and real to us--sometimes too real. Sometimes they record events we do not want to experience, or remember. It is a tribute to their power.
Made for HBO, "Wit" is a drama both intelligent and heartbreaking, starring Emma Thompson as a woman dying of cancer. She is an English professor who filters her own suffering through the disciplines of the poetry she loves. She was always a proud, independent woman who stood apart from others--and now, at the end, she is alone.
I inserted the DVD in the machine, pressed "play," and settled back to watch it. The first shot is a close-up of a man's face, a doctor, who tells someone she has advanced ovarian cancer. The next shot is a close-up of the woman he is speaking to, saying "yes?" or "and?" I forget which. I turned off the TV. I realized I actually could not watch the movie.
I remembered it too clearly, perhaps, and dreaded re-living it. When I reviewed it, its situation was theoretical for me, and I responded to the honesty and emotion of the drama. Since then, I have had cancer, and had all too many hours, days and weeks of hospital routine robbing me of my dignity. Although people in my situation are always praised for their courage, actually courage has nothing to do with it. There is no choice.
I used to smile at reader letters saying things like, "My husband is sick and I need a movie to cheer him up." I doubted the Norman Cousins theory that laughter is curative (I still do). The experience with "Wit" was a revelation. Yes, movies can be immediate and real to us--sometimes too real. Sometimes they record events we do not want to experience, or remember. It is a tribute to their power.
I have been watching a lot of Ingmar Bergman. Last night I finished "The Passion of Anna" (1969). My original review is missing, but it was on my "best 10" list for the year, so I gave it full honor. Have you seen it? It is avant-garde in some of its devices, such as cutaways to the actors discussing their characters. Astonishingly well-photographed by Sven Nykvist. Some of the best work ever done on screen by Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, and Bibi Andersson. And filled with deep, soul-lacerating anguish. But I could admire it, empathize with it, and not shrink away from it, because it was all happening to them. When it happens to you, that's another matter. (R.E.)
Caryn James of The New York Times observed:
"Emma Thompson gives one of her most brilliant performances as Vivian Bearing...Mr. Nichols and Ms. Thompson, who wrote the script together, have made minimal changes to the play, but those amount to a major transformation. They have preserved Ms. Edson's language and intense focus on Vivian's hospital room as she endures eight months of brutal experimental chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. But Mr. Nichols's visual choices turn this into a fluent, gripping television film...The hospital staff around her is played beautifully by actors who escape the hazards of clichés. As Jason, a young doctor proud of the A minus he once got in Vivian's poetry course, Jonathan M. Woodward makes his character's callowness and insensitivity believable. As Susie, the nurse whose total compassion makes her Jason's opposite, Audra McDonald is especially impressive because the character could so easily have been treated with condescension...E. M. Ashford is played with unerring delicacy by Eileen Atkins in a performance that matches Ms. Thompson's brilliance.... [L]et's not pretend that Wit is fun or necessarily soothing; frankly, it is depressing. But if you miss this version, you will also miss a rare experience." (1)
Eddie Cockrell of Variety called the film "shrewd and triumphant" and "focused, emotionally draining and ultimately inspiring" and added, "The risks in filming such a theatrical experience are enormous, yet the original material has been carefully and smartly reworked for the screen by Thompson and Nichols . . . Subtle yet crucial shifts from theatrical to film conventions abound, reaffirming Thompson's skill as both writer and actress . . . as well as Nichols' proven track record with theatrical properties." (2)
Critics from The A.V. Club, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal, among others, also highly praised the film and its performances. Nichols' direction was lauded in many reviews as well. (3)