“People die in character.” – Elizabeth Kübler-Ross
“Now is not the time for verbal swordplay. Now’s the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see I have been found out.” –Vivian Bearing, in Wit
It has taken me a little while to get to Mike Nichols’ very fine, very intense film Wit (2001). Several friends had highly recommended it, but I had this nagging doubt about how I’d handle a film focused on a woman’s struggle with terminal cancer. I guess I feared that the whole experience would be somehow morbid, an uncomfortable emotional voyeurism. As usual, however, I was wrong. Given Mike Nichols’ talent as a director, and Emma Thompson’s as an actor, I should have known that Wit would offer much more than a cycle of pain and despair. In a moving transcendence, the film lives up to its curious title. Wit is the story of a life lived as a verbal fencing match, and a death that demands a surrender of arms.
Emma Thompson plays the role of Vivian Bearing, a 48-year-old professor of 17th century poetry at a prestigious British university. The film begins at the moment that Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) informs her, as peremptorily as possible, that she has been diagnosed with stage 4 advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. There will be no stage 5. Kelekian recommends that Vivian agree to an eight-month course of no-holds-barred chemotherapy, the “Full Dose.” This is to be undertaken not with the hope of a cure—a virtual impossibility given the late discovery of the cancer—but because of Kelekian’s belief that Bearing might be one of the few patients with the willpower to survive long enough to give his research team some invaluable new data.
There will come a time, of course, when the necessity for data collection versus the need to maintain simple human dignity will be on a collision course, but on the whole Vivian accepts scientific martyrdom as the closing act of an uncompromising life.
Vivian Bearing’s life has been based entirely on words and their evocative power. A scholar of metaphysical poetry, specializing in the work of John Donne, she has opened her heart and soul to language. Sadly, she seems to have also shut down both heart and soul insofar as they touched on the people who have passed through her life. Vivian fully appreciates the cruel irony of how cancer suddenly makes the language to which she has devoted everything turn on her in the end. Her doctor talks to her of “insidious” cancer and “pernicious” side-effects, sounding like he’s describing characters in a bad Western. For Kelekian, Bearing is Wyatt Earp walking into a carcinomic OK Corral.
How galling that something described as “pernicious” and “insidious” should take from her the life that she has devoted to the linguistic splendor of John Donne, in whose poetry words—and even punctuation marks—are the stones and mortar of perfect miniature cathedrals. How galling that her final days should be spent in a place where the question “How are you feeling today?” has no real meaning to anyone. Where it’s posed when she’s lying “with a tube in every orifice,” and where she fully expects someone to ask it of her pro forma when she’s dead. Knowing the power of language, Vivian tries to learn the new vocabulary that’s the stock-in-trade of her medical overseers. “I want to know what the doctors mean when they anatomize me—my only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.”
Vivian’s treatment is going to be “very aggressive.” A medical mugging. She thinks that she will be able to stand it because she will handle dying like she has handled living—alone and without compromise. Again, she can appreciate the irony that the language called for in her new condition is more apt for the soccer field or hockey arena than for the parsing of sonnets. Yet as her treatment progresses, we come to realize that the new metaphors are not wholly unsuited to her former life. Her own teaching style would have been described by many of her students as “very aggressive”; her toughness as a taskmaster led one former student to describe her class as a poetry boot camp. In another of those twists that Vivian can fully appreciate, that same former student, Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward), is now a young research doctor working on her case with Kelekian. Like too many of Vivian’s students, perhaps, he’s proud of having mastered her class while failing to demonstrate an iota of empathy for its content. Posner invests all his passion in investigating the biochemical terror that’s killing his former teacher. He views unstoppably metastasizing cancer cells with the same wonder Bearing had for the intricate paradoxes of Donne’s metaphysics.
It is a single poem, “Death be not proud….”, one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, that weaves together the threads of the entire film and of Vivian Bearing’s life. Donne’s sonnet is up to the task; it’s one of the greatest meditations on mortality ever written. Early in Wit we see the young Vivian being upbraided by the formidable Professor E.M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins). Ashford tells her that she has hopelessly bungled her paper on “Death be not proud….” because she used an edition of the poem that had the wrong punctuation in the last line. I love this scene because it’s one of the best displays of passion for the written word that I’ve seen. Too easily dismissed as mere academic pedantry, Ashford’s focus on detail is an acknowledgement of the power of the smallest of words or pauses in speech to haunt us if delivered in the right context. In the context of the brutal spiral of Vivian’s pain, Donne’s poem becomes the lifeline that holds her from despair. She recalls Ashford telling her that in Donne’s sonnet, with the proper punctuation, death is “nothing but a breath…a comma separates life from life everlasting…Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma, a pause.”
As she replays John Donne’s poetry in her mind, Vivian also continues to get a lot of mileage our of irony. When Kelekian and Posner pay her a bedside visit with a coterie of eager interns, delivering running commentaries on the state of her body like Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner, Vivian marvels at the spectacle “full of subservience, hierarchies, gratuitous displays, sublimated rivalries…Just like a graduate seminar.” Their seemingly morbid desire to pore over her condition in excruciating, objective detail turns out to be the medical version of the same desire to know more that had driven her work as a scholar. Her cancerous, chemically-battered body is Kelekian and Posner’s sonnet, the text of their upcoming papers. As Vivian says, it’s “publish and perish.”
Even the sharpest wit and the sharpest sense of irony must ultimately cede to the hammer blows of pain. Wit comes up short. Paradoxes become appalling instead of exciting. In Vivian’s words, “You cannot imagine how time can be so still; it hangs, it weighs, and yet there is so little of it; it goes so slowly, and yet it is so scarce.” As her world constricts to a tight ball of unrelenting agony, Vivian reaches out for kindness in a way she has never done before. Susie (Audra McDonald), a black nurse on her ward, becomes her guardian angel. Professor Ashford returns briefly as her only outside visitor, at her most vulnerable moment. Barely capable of speech, on the brink of death, Vivian reacts with horror when Ashford proposes to recite Donne to comfort her. A gentler farewell is needed. Ashford finds it in a gift she’s just purchased for her granddaughter.
Director Mike Nichols handles Vivian’s story with consummate skill. The flashbacks are unique, bringing the gaunt, suffering Vivian into remembered scenes of childhood and early university. Nichols allows Emma Thompson to address the camera directly, a risky strategy that works because of Thompson’s bravura performance (one critic compared it to Renée Falconetti’s in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—high praise indeed). The music chosen for the film, four modern classical pieces by Shostakovitch, Arvo Pärt, Górecki, and Charles Ives, is as subtly evocative as the punctuation of the Holy Sonnets.
…And Thou like adamant draw mine iron heart. A line from Donne. For the poet, “Thou” was God; for Vivian, just pain. The “drawing forth” comes too late. Too long unmoved her iron heart. The times for kindness were long ago.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Once I taught, now I am taught.” –Vivian Bearing, in Wit
This is what happens when irresistible force (ovarian cancer) meets immovable object (formidable John Donne scholar Vivian Bearing). Except there’s no happy ending here. The force is truly irresistible, and Vivian, despite her stoicism and her heroic take-no-prisoners approach to treatment, must move from sardonic wit to self-doubt to a childlike need for a loving touch.
Twenty years ago, when I first reviewed Wit, I had never been seriously ill and my medical file had two pieces of paper in it. No life-threatening illness had affected my immediate family, or my colleagues or close friends. Yet even living within that blessed bubble, Emma Thompson’s performance drove home for me something of what it meant to confront mortality sooner and more painfully than one could have prepared for.
Now, two decades later, my medical file is as thick as a phone book. No need to go into detail, except to mention that a series of kidney stone attacks were excellent lessons in helplessness in the face of unrelenting pain. My mother waged a long, stubborn, successful rearguard action against failing health to stay independent in her own home, accepting hospitalization only in the final two weeks of her life. Cancer has touched my own life, as well as the lives of friends. I miss the bubble.
None of these experiences have affected my admiration for Wit’s unflinching portrait. What has changed is my awareness of how the quality of a person’s life translates into the love and support of those touched by that life. A teacher with Vivian Bearing’s passion for metaphysical poetry and with her uncompromising standards would never have been alone during the protraced months of her treatment. From everything I’ve seen during my years as a teacher, and after, a true love of literature is a love of life, and a love for life isn’t conducive to loneliness. Ms. Bearing may not have had a family or a lover, but she would never have been forgotten by the colleagues with whom she worked or the students whom she mentored. In the film, only her mentor Evelyn Ashford visits her in her final hours. This is not the way it happens, I think. What Ashford does is, from my experience, only a final act of kindness in what would be an unbroken chain of such acts. Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions (2003) sets up a fine dialectic with Wit by surrounding its dying, cantankerous protagonist’s bedside with an estranged son, an ex-wife, old friends, and former lovers.
While the years may have taught me more than I want to know about illness and getting older, they’ve only reinforced my joy in discovering teachers like Robin Blaser who help me see so much where I once understood so little. I’ve included a few of my favorites in the Books section above. I’ve never actually met Sister Wendy Beckett or Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael, but they have opened critical doors for me for as long as I can remember.
Unlike Vivian’s hospital experiences, or that of Rémy in The Barbarian Invasion, I have nothing but the highest praise for the professionalism and the compassion shown to me by doctors and nurses whenever I’ve chanced to be in their care in hospitals both at home and abroad. I’m eternally grateful.
Finally, a mention of that sublime moment in Wit where Ashford, cradling Vivian, reads her the story of the Runaway Bunny. Just in case I’m unable to do so if the time comes, I’m putting in my request for Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. No need to cuddle.
Director Mike Nichols died in 2014 at the age of 83. His follow-up to Wit was the award-winning TV series based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. Emma Thompson currently has 2 Oscars and 94 acting credits on Imdb, along with 17 screenwriting credits. Eileen Atkins has 103 credits and a Primetime Emmy. Christopher Lloyd has an astounding 238 acting credits, with a half dozen films in production as I write this in early 2022. Audra McDonald continues to have a successful acting career. Jonathan M. Woodward seems to have worked only sporadically in television and films since 2001. Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, and was twice nominated for an Oscar.
Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud
By John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Available on YouTube? Yes, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aW4tzklTLQ