A shrewd and triumphant retooling of Margaret Edson's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Wit" tempers its harrowing tale of an English literary scholar's fierce fight against ovarian cancer with a strong strain of the title trait. While subject matter may be initially off-putting to some, positive word-of-mouth generated by memories of the theatrical experience, Emma Thompson's sensational leading perf and vet Mike Nichols' measured, top-of-his-game direction should put those fears in quick remission.

A shrewd and triumphant retooling of Margaret Edson’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit” tempers its harrowing tale of an English literary scholar’s fierce fight against ovarian cancer with a strong strain of the title trait. While subject matter may be initially off-putting to some, positive word-of-mouth generated by memories of the theatrical experience, Emma Thompson’s sensational leading perf and vet Mike Nichols’ measured, top-of-his-game direction should put those fears in quick remission. Focused, emotionally draining and ultimately inspiring, “Wit” is nothing less than a cancer comedy with courage and compassion, and pic should ride those strengths to healthy vital signs on all charts with intelligent auds.

Having just learned of her advanced, stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer (“There is no stage five,” she’s told firmly), tough and prickly 48-year-old Vivian Bearing (Thompson) has agreed to undergo the most brutal form of chemotherapy available. To this end she puts herself in the eager but insensitive hands of veteran researcher Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) and his young internist — and Bearing’s former student — Dr. Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward), assisted by compassionate nurse Susie Monahan (Audra McDonald).

As the tests proceed and the inevitable side effects begin to wrack her body, the game yet increasingly desperate and despondent Vivian reflects on the parallels between her fight and the life-and-death issues at the heart of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, to which she’s dedicated her professional life .

Former mentor E.M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins) comes to visit and reads to her “The Runaway Bunny” (the patient rejects Donne with a groan). Through it all Vivan endures the humiliating procedures and perfunctory exhortations of the two doctors, falling back on a wit at once merciless and bitter. Yet, as she comes to face the inevitable truth that the procedure isn’t working, she also grieves for her own insensitivity and drive, realizing that “knowledge isn’t power.”

In her wake, she’s effected an apparently profound change on at least two of her caregivers .

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, sharing screenplay credit and their first creative collaboration since “Primary Colors.” Subtle yet crucial shifts from theatrical to film conventions abound, reaffirming Thompson’s skill as both writer and actress (“Sense and Sensibility”) as well as Nichols’ proven track record with theatrical properties (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Biloxi Blues” spring immediately to mind, although the blithely bitter sarcasm of “Postcards From the Edge” is arguably closest in tone to this new work).

On top of a number of technically intricate long takes, the most daring visual gambit involves the effortless blending of actors and sets to meld flashback and contempo hospital scenes together, while the potentially hoary device of having Thompson address the camera directly has new life breathed into it via Nichols’ blocking and the skillful camerawork of lenser Seamus McGarvey (“The Winter Guest”).

Nichols’ legendary way with actors is in evidence again. Thompson is utterly believable in all phases of the debilitating illness, while Lloyd finally has a role in which he can exploit the odd yet appealing mix of eccentricity and sincerity that was promised by “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Taxi” but has lately proved elusive.

Vets Atkins and Pinter make the most of their few scenes (the “Runaway Bunny” sequence is an emotional high point); Woodward acquits himself admirably in his screen debut as perhaps the most complex male character in the piece, and McDonald (most recently seen in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) contributes much-needed warmth with a character that grows in importance through the late reels.

Tech credits are first rate, with production designer Stuart Wurtzel’s quartet of stark and sterile hospital sets utterly convincing (pic was shot at London’s Pinewood Studios). The spot-on choice of musical selections also evoke a plaintive theatrical punctuation, lending the production a spare dignity from which it benefits enormously on the bigscreen and will survive intact in tube shrinkage.

Wit

Production

An HBO Films presentation of an Avenue Pictures production. (International sales: HBO Enterprises, New York.) Produced by Simon Bosanquet. Executive producers, Cary Brokaw, Mike Nichols. Co-producers, Julie Lynn, Charles F. Ryan, Mike Haley. Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay, Emma Thompson, Nichols, based on the play by Margaret Edson.

Crew

Camera (color), Seamus McGarvey; editor, John Bloom; music, Dmitry Shostakovich, Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, Charles Ives; production designer, Stuart Wurtzel; costume designer, Ann Roth; sound, Paul Cridlin; sound mix, David John; makeup, J. Roy Helland, Linda de Vetta; assistant director, Mike Haley. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 8, 2001. Running time: 98 MIN.

Cast

Vivian Bearing - Emma Thompson Dr. Harvey Kelekian - Christopher Lloyd E.M. Ashford - Eileen Atkins Susie Monahan - Audra McDonald Dr. Jason Posner - Jonathan M. Woodward Mr. Bearing Harold Pinter
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