It seems lately that I’m gravitating towards films that tend to leave me feeling like a bit of stray, limp pasta that never quite survives the draining and ends up on the edge of the sink hole. Not a very pretty picture, is it? But then, Wit isn’t a pretty film. It is gritty. And unashamed. And it throws light on all the ugliness that gets shoved under the rug. It will leave you squirming in discomfort, pity, heartbreak, and maybe a little guilt.
Wit stars the splendid Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing, a university lecturer who becomes diagnosed with terminal cancer. Following that, the film simply documents her reactions, her revelations, and her reassessment of herself and her past.
“It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death. I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a professor of 17th century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.”
The film jumps back and forth, between the past and the present; between the younger, more vulnerable Vivian who clings to words as a means of protection and understanding the world without interacting with it, and the older Professor Bearing who either whips out words like weapons, intending to vanquish with a single, sharp blow or draws dry circles of wit around unsuspecting victims.
Despite the fact that this film deals with such a sombre subject as cancer, it doesn’t hold back on the humour. Or maybe humor’s the best (only?) way to treat such subjects as these. I guess many people wouldn’t be interested in watching an hour and a half of footage of a prickly lecturer feeling sorry for herself if she wasn’t also laughing at herself while she’s at it. While Professor Bearing doesn’t necessarily laugh at herself she is continually finding humor at the situation she’s in. And then she’ll look directly at you with that look of complete deadpan disdain. Emma Watson is pitch perfect in delivering the wit and humor.
“I have been asked ‘How are you feeling today?’ while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four hour operation with a tube in every orifice, ‘How are you feeling today?’. I’m waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead. I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.”
But soon Vivian comes to realize that wit is not enough. She starts to yearn for warmth and friendship. For the human contact that she has spurned for so many years. As someone who is undertaking a new cancer treatment she is nothing but a means of achieving results for the doctors. And it’s a little heartbreaking to see her struggle inside the shell that she’s created for herself.
Ultimately though, the film becomes a study in looking beyond the screens we all prop up around ourselves. In finding the humanity that exists not only in others, but in ourselves.
I shall leave you with my favorite lines from the film, which are uttered by Vivian’s own lecturer, played by Eileen Atkins, and which seem to lay out the purpose of the whole film. They will punch you in the gut with how profound they are.
“The sonnet beings with a valiant struggle with death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. It is ultimately about the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death and eternal life.
In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation. And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark! If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare.
Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar.
It reads, ‘And death shall be no more, comma, death, thou shalt die.’ Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.
Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause.
In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.”