Thursday, September 8, 2016

Number One Palliative-Themed Movie? Wit

by Amy Clarkson

(Margaret Edson, author of Wit, will be speaking at the 2016 Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium, so we are sharing this review from our Arts and Humanities site, originally published in 2009. - Ed.)

There are many movies out there with palliative themes, as we can attest to with our top 10 movie post, which garnered much comments. One of my all time favorites, also made number 1 on our top 10 palliative-themed movies list; Wit.

I first saw this movie in medical school. In fact, according to the IMDb, this movie is known for being shown at medical schools as an example of how not to practice medicine. Also, the plot deals with dying, so it's all the more relevant to those of us who care for dying patients.

The plot is this: An English lit professor, known for her high expectations and little compassion in the classroom is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The movie shows her experiences from diagnosis to death. Her last weeks are spent in the hospital, undergoing rigorous treatment. She is alone, except for the nurses, attending and fellow who treat her. Through her reflections and memories there is a definite parallel between her heartless days teaching and the heartless medical system she is now in.

The movie is based on a play by Margaret Edson and this monologue, play-like background is the inspiration for the screenplay, making it unique. The soundtrack is simple with only 4 pieces listed. My favorite piece is "Speigel im speigel" or 'Mirror in a mirror' by Arvo Part. It is played often in the movie, the simplicity of the cello and piano is also melancholy, leaving the viewer with the feeling of being alone, just as the main character is.

I love this movie not just for it's ability to pierce me with its sad realities of the medical world, but also for it's subtle sub theme about death. All through out the movie we are bombarded with a certain text from a John Donne's Holy Sonnet 10. The main character was a John Donne expert and specifically recalls the punctuation differences pointed out at the end of this poem by her mentor.

The last line of the sonnet entitled "Death be not proud" is "And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die." The version our main character had found was different "And Death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die!"

Here is the discussion with her mentor on the punctuation differences, talking about the version with the comma: "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. "

If only the main character's death could have been so simple. Yet of the many ways death is portrayed in films, her portrayal is haunting. No one should have to die like this, without dignity and respect (ignoring her DNR)...alone in a hospital. Yet it is haunting, because of how real this type of death is. It is the antitheses of a palliative care death.

I've included a clip of our main character (Emma Thompson) thinking out loud. It's a lovely introspection of what's she's dealing with. Another clip has been taken down from YouTube, but when originally posted, it is a beautiful moment when our character actually gets her one and only visitor, her old hard-nosed mentor. The simplicity of human connection in the clip, with the Arvo Part soundtrack accompanying, makes me tear up every time.
I'd also suggest reading John Donne's Holy Sonnet 10 "Death be not proud" (This version uses a semi-colon and no exclamation!)

Dr. Amy Clarkson is a hospice and palliative care doctor in Pratt, KS, and former co-editor of the Pallimed: Arts and Humanities Site.

Image Credit: Still Image from Wit

If you are interested in writing reviews for old or new books and films, please check out our Pallimed Opportunities page. - Ed.

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