The Doctor grapples powerfully with themes of mortality, compassion, social responsibility [from Ed Rosenbaum’s book A Taste of My Own Med icine]. William Hurt’s perf as an emotionally constricted heart and lung surgeon faced with his own medical crisis is all the more moving for its rigor and restraint.
Hurt espouses a philosophy of emotional distance, claiming that empathy interferes with technical demands made on a surgeon. He carries over the approach into his sterile family life in affluent Marin County, keeping wife Christine Lahti and son Charlie Korsmo at arm’s length. His life is thrown into turmoil when he is diagnosed with throat cancer.
Director Randa Haines, who previously guided Hurt in Children of a Lesser God, first cast Warren Beatty in The Doctor before they parted over differences of interpretation. She is fortunate to have an icier actor such as Hurt in the role, because it’s more of a stretch for him to evolve into a mensch.
Haines’ intelligent direction is methodical in the best sense of the word, using documentary-like storytelling techniques with lenser John Seale to take the viewer through the doctor’s journey of self-discovery in Ken Adam’ s chilling silver-blue hospital set.
Hurt’s initial self-pity begins to evaporate when he enters the incandescent presence of fellow patient Elizabeth Perkins. Their platonic but intimate relationship becomes the film’s emotional crux as Perkins (in a wondrously good performance) teaches Hurt what he failed to learn in med school about unconquerable pain and acceptance of death.