Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Emma Thompson plays Dr Vivian Bearing, a middle-aged English professor and expert on John Donne's meditations on life and death, the Holy Sonnets. When Bearing is belatedly diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, Donne's sonnets take on an added resonance. The disease is in its fourth stage. There is no fifth.

Dr Bearing's only hope is the experimental regime of high-dose chemotherapy proposed by medical researcher, Dr Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd). Consenting to the treatment, which no patient has ever lasted all the way through, Bearing resolves to become a scholar of her cancer, subjecting it to the same scrutiny and will to mastery as she has Donne's work.

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Wit re-unites Thompson with Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate), after their collaboration on Primary Colors, in a screen adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning off-Broadway play.

One is immediately struck by the quality of Edson's writing. Craft, care and attention to detail are apparent throughout. Every word, every point of punctuation is made to count, the accumulating layers of wit and meaning brilliantly reflecting the protagonist's lifelong obsession with language and interpretation

The plotting is perhaps less accomplished. One sometimes feels that there are too many moments of coincidence. It just so happens, for instance, that Kelkovian's junior researcher, Dr Posner, took Bearing's poetry course when he was an undergraduate. Contrivances like this heighten ones awareness of the constructed nature of the piece in a negative way, lessening its emotional impact a little.

Stylistically, Wit's theatrical origins are apparent, though Thompson's monologues, addressed direct to the viewer, are counterbalanced by Nichols's adept use of cinematic devices. Many sequences are constructed around intense close-ups that heighten their intimacy and impact, while exceptionally adroit editing allows for a seamless blending of past and present in a number of well used flashbacks and imaginary sequences.

The filmmakers use and choice of music also impresses. Fragments of four modern classical pieces - including Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel and the second movement of Henryk Gorecki's Sympony of Sorrowful Songs - repeat over key scenes, adding emotional weight, yet never overwhelming other elements, or pitching the film into outright melodrama.

Nevertheless, whatever the respective merits of Edson's play and Nichols's direction, one has to say that Wit ultimately belongs to Emma Thompson. She is simply outstanding as Bearing, perfectly capturing the character's driven essence and gradual shift from determination through bravado to fear and, finally, resignation. At times her bald-headed, screen-filling visage reminded me of Renee Falconetti's legendary performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Joan of Arc - just about the highest compliment I can think of.

This is not to denigrate the performances from the other actors. Christopher Lloyd displays an uncharacteristic subtlety as Kelkovian, evidently aware that this is not the place for scene-stealing antics, while Audra McDonald and Jonathan M Woodward provide sterling support as the other members of the medical team.

Well made and with an incredibly powerful central performance, Wit provides a fittingly poignant end to the 2001 Edinburgh International Film Festival and Lizzie Francke's tenure as its artistic director.

Reviewed on: 10 Aug 2001
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Wit packshot
University don fights cancer by treating it as she does the sonnets of John Donne.
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Director: Mike Nichols

Writer: Mike Nichols, Emma Thompson, based on the play by Margaret Edson

Starring: Emma Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Atkins, Audra McDonald, Jonathan M. Woodward, Harold Pinter, Rebecca Laurie, Su Lin Looi, Raffaello Degruttola, Miquel Brown, Hari Dhillon

Year: 2001

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2001

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