In our blog’s first, but hopefully not last, cultural review, I encourage all readers to watch the movie Wit, which first appeared on HBO television in 2001. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, Wit is one of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen. It should be watched by anyone and everyone involved in health care.
Shot almost entirely in a single hospital room, Wit tells the fictional story of Vivian Bearing, an English literature professor dying of ovarian cancer. In scenes both intense and subtle, Wit captures important themes about life, death, and the way health care is experienced from the patient’s perspective. The clinicians caring for Vivian are smart and well meaning, yet for the most part unaware of how their words and actions make life more difficult for the patient in front of them. The film illustrates how patients and doctors may be in the same room at the same time, interacting with each other, but inhabiting two very different worlds. As I watched the story unfold, I could not help but re-evaluate some of my own interactions with patients, and I wished I had at times approached situations differently.
But the film does much more than just offer a blunt and at times searing view of the patient-physician relationship. It also offers a profoundly moving statement on what makes life meaningful. As Vivian reflects back on how she lived her life, she clearly feels she did not adequately appreciate what should have been important. There are profound lessons here for anyone trying to live a good life.
Wit was never released in theaters, which is unfortunate because it diminished the movie’s viewership. Roger Ebert said Wit was the best performance ever given by Emma Thompson and the SF Chronicle said her performance far surpassed all those nominated for a best actress Oscar that year. Not surprisingly, Wit won multiple Emmy Awards.
Letting you know that Vivian dies at the end of the movie is not a spoiler. But I do want to say that the last five minutes of the movie is so intense and so extraordinary that it will – I guarantee this – leave you speechless. It is quite literally impossible to avoid crying, even though you know what is coming.
The movie can be a bit hard to find, though it is available on DVD through the usual internet retailers. If you have a chance to see this film, it will change your approach to patients and make you reflect on what is truly important in life.
Richard Fleming, MD