A glimpse of humanity at its best

Preview: `Wit' -- with a masterful performance by Emma Thompson -- takes us on an intense and intelligent journey to the end of a life.

March 24, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

During Oscar weekend, we're supposed to worship work done on the big screen. But I dare you to find a better performance among any of the best-acting nominations for an Academy Award than the one delivered on the small screen tonight by Emma Thompson in HBO's "Wit."

Judy Davis blew me away a few weeks ago as Judy Garland in an ABC movie on the singer's life. But, as great as it was, Davis' performance was only a warm-up for the one Thompson delivers in the television version of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about an accomplished and prickly 48-year-old professor's battle with advanced ovarian cancer. While the cancer is horrible, it's the culture of modern medical research that causes much of the worst suffering in the final days of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., and Thompson makes the audience feel every moment of indifference, indignity and inhumanity.

Be warned: By the standards of most made-for-TV movies, this is an incredibly intense journey, as deep as myth and dark as death. But, in making the soul ache, "Wit" is one of those rare television experiences with the capacity to make us more human.

Looking into the face of Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd), the film's very first words are, "You have cancer." The pronouncement is followed by a blur of science-speak from the eminent medical researcher that many patients wouldn't understand.

But this patient sitting across from him -- whose point-of-view we've already started entering into thanks to the position of the camera -- is every bit the precise researcher, scholar and lover of jargon that he is. While her field of expertise is John Donne and 17th century Metaphysical poetry as opposed to oncology, she uses words just as Kelekian does, to wall off real emotion.

She has already mastered most of the terminology of her disease, but fails to absorb its ultimate meaning, as she starts her journey to the grave imagining that she and Kelekian are somehow academic colleagues in the hyper-aggressive, radical program of chemotherapy he prescribes.

The next scene opens with her sitting in a hospital gown on a hospital bed wearing a baseball hat to cover her bald head.

"I should have asked more questions, because I knew there was going to be a test," she says speaking directly to the camera and, thus, to us. It's a form of address that continues throughout this brilliant adaptation written by Thompson and director Mike Nichols.

On one level, the remark is an example of Bearing's ironic wit -- the senior scholar commenting wryly on her new status as a student, forced again to take tests. But, on another level, the "test" is death itself, and she has started to acknowledge where she's headed.

This one little sentence is a marvelous mirror of Donne's poetry, which was preoccupied with death and filled with wordplay and multiple meanings -- all of which went by the name of "wit" in 16th and 17th century England. Staying true to the play, the television script is chock full of such stuff. It's the razor-sharp edge both in Bearing's character and the film that keeps the story from becoming maudlin or sentimental in the way that so many made-for-television movies about fatal illnesses are.

But, for all her learning and knowledge, Bearing has much to learn about life and death, and the simple but profound wisdom of kindness, caring and connecting with others. Her guide on this journey is a primary care nurse (Audra McDonald) who gives Bearing what none of the mighty male medical doctors and researchers are willing to offer.

By the end of the film, everything is stripped away. Bearing's world shrinks and shrinks until it's the size of her hospital bed, a feeling enhanced by Nichols' clever use of overhead camera shots. Ultimately, all that exists is the character, curling in on herself, getting weaker and weaker, until Thompson pulls off the illusion of making the audience feel we've just watched someone die.

It's not pretty, but it's an eye-opening experience with the capacity to ennoble the way we live the rest of our lives. That's more than any of us has a right to expect from just another night in front of the tube.

Made-for-TV movie

What: "Wit"

When: Tonight at 9

Where: HBO

In brief: Emma Thompson in a performance not to be missed.

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