Terry Kelleher
March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

HBO (Sat., March 24, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

Since Wit centers on a woman who has the highest respect for the meaning and connotation of words, I want to be careful about labeling this adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It is not a “TV movie” if you understand that term to be belittling or pejorative. True, Wit was made for cable television, but it happens to be one of the finest films I’ve seen in recent years—on big screen or small.

Under the sensitive but unsparing direction of Mike Nichols, Emma Thompson stars as Vivian Bearing, a distinguished professor of 17th-century English poetry. Tough and exacting in her work—and her work is her life—Vivian betrays only a slight hint of fear when she receives a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer. She crisply agrees to participate in an eight-month trial of an aggressive new drug regimen that will force her to withstand pernicious side effects. After years of preoccupation with metaphysical verse, Vivian now changes her specialty to physical suffering. For the patient the process proves devastating but humanizing.

This is a role that requires an actress to simulate violent vomiting one moment and elicit a rueful laugh the next. It calls for consummate skill and unshakable commitment, and Thompson demonstrates both. But Wit also focuses on the medical professionals who treat Vivian—and, in a real sense, use her. Christopher Lloyd, reining in his usual eccentricity, is excellent as a senior physician who seems oblivious to the patient’s agony, and Jonathan M. Woodward is even more effective as a smart young doctor—and former student of Vivian’s—who sees cancer primarily as a career track. Balancing Woodward’s character perfectly is a nurse (Audra McDonald) well-versed in something more vital than poetic profundity: common decency.

Bottom Line: Medical breakthrough

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