Donne and Gone
In London’s theatre-land exists a class of plays called “coach-pullers.” These plays, among them the entire opus of Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber, appeal to comfortable suburbanites looking for a well-made play that will exercise their emotions but leave their preconceptions undisturbed. HBO’s adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Wit, drops firmly into this category. The film orchestrates predictable swipes at crowd-pleasing issues (the distance of doctors from patients, the inhumanity of technologized research medicine), but carefully removes any sting death retains by turning the protagonist, Dr. Vivian Bearing (a particularly steel-and-gossamer portrayal by Emma Thompson), into that overworked parody of the clever woman, the menopausal spinster scholar.
The film inches through the dying months of Bearing, an imposing academic who has devoted her life to the works of the early modern metaphysical poet, John Donne, and now faces experimental treatment for stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. She is treated by the urbane but ruthless clinical director, Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) and his acolyte, Dr. Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward), who openly plumb the gold of research data from patients’ suffering, and she slowly befriends sensitive, warm-hearted Nurse Monahan (Audra McDonald). Each character is as cliched as Bearing, and more one-dimensional: Posner is allowed no moment of sympathy for his patient and Monahan remains an idealized patient’s advocate.
But beyond the simplistic characters lie deeper plot problems. Boring old network television has already covered every issue on which the film touches, but with more nuance, more subtlety, and more flesh-and-blood humanity than Wit can summon throughout its ninety high-talent minutes. ER alone, for example, has meditated movingly on doctors for whom the thrill of medicine lies in their own prestige, and not in the lives of their patients. It has highlighted the competing and unequal demands on clinical trials that fund hard-pressed hospitals and the ethical treatment and care of patients. It has kept vigil at deaths more traumatic and, ultimately, more affecting, than that of Vivian Bearing. More realistically, too, it has breached the somewhat sexist divide between dispassionate males doctors and empathetic female nurses in which Wit indulges. The lack of originality, which live performance may have masked in the play itself, is mercilessly exposed by television’s domestic frame.
The film itself seems unsure of its own trajectory. The graceful parabola of middlebrow angst continues unchecked, seizing in lieu of creativity, but in search of credibility, a decoration of Donne (though not very much Donne—it’s as if he wrote one poem and a few catchy phrases). Nor does the film ever resolve the contradiction at its heart. When Bearing feels regret over her intellectual rigor in the classroom, or Posner confesses to this patient who has survived eight months of ravaging chemotherapy that he cannot wait to leave the messiness of the ward rotation for his research lab, the film seems to indict the world of ideas, and those who live there, as a diminished humanity. Against reason, the film pits Monahan, whose kindness apparently encodes the transfiguring power of ordinary human warmth.
Yet the film celebrates Donne, that most intellectual of English poets, whose entire body of mature work reveals the sensual and spiritual transcendence a fervent rationality can produce: Wit‘s most emotionally unexpected, and thus rewarding, moments flow from the intellect expressed in language. Like Donne, Vivian herself finds in words (themselves mere codes for the ideas they represent) and the exercise of her mind a powerful mediation between the screaming terror of death and the public persona willingly enduring the bleached white beds of the hospital. Like a more refined version of the wisecracking dame joking her way to extinction, she survievs by deploying irony (as she notes of her cancer, “There is no stage five”), anger (offering her name to yet another doctor as Lucy, Countess of Bedford), and precision (the estimate she gives the nurse of her vomit’s volume). And when even irony leaves her, the word still saves her.
In the most moving scene of the film, Bearing’s academic mentor, Dr. Evelyn Ashford (Eileen Atkins), visits her in hospital on the day when she learns of Bearing’s illness, a day when Vivian is long past hope or recovery. In a tiny moment that counteracts the film’s apparent thesis, that the life of the mind cannot comfort the body, the rational academic Ashford knows to climb into bed with Vivian. Letting Vivian clutch her well-mannered clothes and cradling her sometime student’s head, Ashford begins to read The Runaway Bunny. She reads not as a great-grandmother to a child, but with the delight of one scholar reading a text to the other, including full bibliographical details and her own theoretical gloss on the story as “a little allegory of the soul.” By the end of the book, Vivian sleeps so peacefully that Dr. Ashford can draw her shawl from Vivian’s grasp without disturbing her (in itself a fleeting, poignant image of the way in which the living subliminally withdraw from the dying as they themselves withdraw from life).
When the film forgets its unsustainable opposition between intellect and human warmth, it slips its formidable limitations, and begins to match the eloquence of the performances and the unnerving beauty of the cinematography, set design, and direction. Stuart Wirzel’s sets and Seamus McGarvey’s lighting infuse almost every scene with a blue-tinged white so intense it seems on the brink of overwhelming the camera, an eloquent allegory for the death that is also, always, on the verge of removing Vivian from the screen. Perhaps only Emma Thompson’s unconventional beauty, slightly flat north London intonation, and sheer power of projection could battle such a rival. Here she conveys, as she did in Remains of the Day, a knot of conflicting emotions in the turn of her head to the camera, the raising of an eyebrow or a rough edge to a single word. But too often, the acting, direction, and cinematography seem like art in the service of the mundane.
It’s hard, then, to explain the plaudits that greeted the film during its preparation and after its premiere. In the end, Wit may be remarkable not for what it is but merely for the fact of its existence—a serious, quasi-intellectual drama filmed by two Oscar-winners miraculously commissioned by and shown on TV. But the genre that was once the mainstay of prime-time drama cannot be revived, however good the critical intentions, through a “criticism of attractions” that applauds the second-hand in Wit, yet ignores the ground-breaking that goes on during the 10-to-11 slot, on weekday nights, on network television.