Film: Wit

Mar. 3rd, 2015 11:02 am
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Reason for watching it: We screened it for the second year students, who are getting to the point where they're spending enough time in clinical environments that there's a good chance they will see someone die in the coming months. The idea is that they get a supportive environment in which to do at least some of the emotional work ahead of dealing with this for real, and hopefully they then won't completely fall apart when that happens. (There's a ton of research about the detrimental effects of medical students and trainee doctors not being adequately prepared to deal with death, but nobody quite knows what "adequately prepared" looks like. So we're working on it.)

Circumstances of watching it: Ugh, this term! I've had a solid six weeks with a heavy enough teaching and marking load that I feel I've been running a Red Queen's race since the new year, I haven't had time to do anything at all non-urgent, and it's making me really anxious. In theory things were supposed to slow down by the end of February; in practice everybody's kind of scrabbling, and the school were short of staff for running a bunch of sessions through March, so I've ended up roped into more teaching in the coming weeks. And because it's all last minute cover it's all in bits of the curriculum well outside my expertise. I really didn't want to be a facilitator for this session where we get the students to talk about death, but needs must. I kind of feel like this is one of the times where it's more important than usual to have a clinician leading, cos it's not just factual knowledge, it's being able to speak from experience of dealing with death as a doctor. But I suppose I was better than no-one.

Verdict: Wit is thought-provoking if at times over-dramatic.

So, look, the whole point of this film is that it's 90 minutes of the protagonist dying of cancer. Not in real time, it covers several months from diagnosis to the end, but the whole film, and therefore my review, is about illness and dying within the medical system.

Wit is basically Emma Thompson doing a TV version of a srs intellectual play, which had won the Pulitzer prize a couple of years before this film was made. And it's not bad for getting the medical students thinking, because it contrasts the personal, emotional experiences of the protag, with the rather unfeeling medical machine that just treats her as a problem to be fixed or a research topic to be studied. There's a bunch of doctors with basically no bedside manner (why are the research oncologists always the evil ones?) and a very sweet, sympathetic African-American nurse who is the only person who actually cares for Prof Bearing as a person.

Thompson's character, Prof Bearing, spends most of the film quoting Donne a lot, and making snarky, slightly fourth-wall breaking quips to the camera about how a drama falls short of representing the horror that is dying of metastatic cancer. The film certainly took a step further towards realism than most Hollywood representations of hospitals and terminal illness, but it wasn't more realism than you could bear to watch, it's still prettied up quite a lot. There's a little bit of throwing up, but it's fairly symbolic. Even right at the end Thompson looks like, well, a beautiful actress with a shaved head, who hasn't had a good night's sleep and has a bit of a cold sore, and not very much like someone dying of cancer.

The emotional stuff was handled well, you got this whole arc where Bearing has this self-image as a competent intellectual, and she desperately tries to carry on being brisk and sarcastic and clever when actually she's terrified and in pain and and falling apart physically and emotionally. I've always liked Thompson as an actor, and the character of Prof Bearing is not very much like me but is somewhat like the person I thought I might become, when I was a teenager, a respected academic who doesn't really do interpersonal stuff more than she has to. So on some level I could relate to her. I'm not hugely fond of the way that Hollywood portrays academics; there's a lot of reciting poetry in a dramatic voice, particularly Death be not proud, and pontificating about the importance of the commas for understanding Donne's poetry, but hey. I didn't like the very end of the film where she sort of falls back on the classic tropes for conveying suffering, which are not representative of how most people in pain actually act, but I suppose that was necessary to convey the emotional point.

Anyway, it's not a film I particularly recommend unless you're trying to help some students to think about death, but it's not a terrible film for what it is.

It seems possible that I'm somewhat emotionally affected by this; the film is genuinely harrowing in places as well as a bit over-dramatic. And running the discussion where I had to manage a lot of the medical students' emotions was pretty draining, I think, especially coming on top of generally stressful stuff. So lots of things that should be fine are feeling daunting, just now. Send hugs pls?
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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