I’m normally one of those who run for the hills at the sound of the words “Starring Emma Thompson”. This is because, whatever the role, she always seems to be playing herself, with the same languid-going-on-tedious voice, mannerisms and expressions. She was at it again for the first half-hour of Wit, in which she (allegedly) played Vivian Bearing, a professor of English with terminal cancer embarking on a course of high-dose chemotherapy. But then, as the cancer and toxins took hold, her character’s appearance changed dramatically, and so did her performance. She became someone different, and for an hour she was brilliant.
Based on a Pulitzer prize-winning play and set in America (although Thompson, who co-adapted it, sensibly cast herself as British), the film’s theme was terrible irony. Bearing was the frosty academic who found herself in the hands of equally cold clinicians, whose thirst for knowledge about cancerous cells matched hers for the meaning of John Donne’s poetry. They treated her with the same clinical detachment she’d once shown to her students, and she retained her integrity by accepting it, even when it became clear that she was little more than a guinea-pig to them.
In many respects it was by-the numbers stuff. Bearing’s transformed circumstances were underlined (in double marker-pen) by the junior doctor being her former student, while the hospital’s bleakness was made bearable (just) by a Good Nurse (a great performance by Auda McDonald), who started off semi-indifferent but ended up fighting for her patient’s right to die with dignity. The meaning of death was explored through lengthy pondering on Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (“Death, be not proud…”), and the journey through life was reviewed through flashbacks to Bearing’s earlier days.
What really mattered, though, was Thompson’s portrayal of Bearing’s decline. As her condition worsened, the voice, mannerisms and expressions changed until you hardly recognised her, except that the inner person remained recognisably the same. It didn’t matter any more that she’d been an unbelievable professor at the start, because she’d changed so believably into a dying one now.
When the final frames dissolved between her dead face and the live, healthy one we’d seen earlier, it was heartbreaking.
A polished-but-predictable drama made memorable by a stunning, selfless performance from Emma Thompson. Unexpected, but true nevertheless.