Alex Thompson’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is film 4 of a long-ish marathon I'm doing over at the Filmspotting Forum with a few other members. In it we will be considering at least one movie from the careers of some of our best working actresses (Emma Thompson, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Juliette Binoche, and Meryl Streep) See all of my reviews here.
This was originally a play, one for which the playwright, Margaret Edson, won a Pulitzer. She hasn't written anything else. Weird, cuz this is pretty amazing. It's a writers movie, an actors movie, and a directors movie all at the same time. The writing, which gives such wonderful lines to the always brilliant Emma Thompson, reflects the intelligence she is supposed to have as the leading John Donne scholar and weaves the story of a woman dealing with late-stage ovarian cancer in with some thoughts on death, the medical field, and words. As a guy who wants to have some version of this woman's job later in life, it was an inspiring experience. Emma Thompson is as good as she's ever been here. Not only does she have to play a 5 year old just learning how to read, she also must embody the pain and suffering a body often endures in the end stages of life. It is not shocking that she is able to play all sides of this wonderful character, the hard-nosed academic and the student, the healthy and the sick, the quick witted and the slowly deteriorating, but it is special to see. Again, she is able to portray so much with so little. The screenplay, adapted by Thompson and director Mike Nichols, allows for some clever camerawork, as well. I can imagine figures from Thompson's past appearing from one side of the stage or another, perhaps with some telling prop to indicate that a particular scene takes place in a living room or an office or something, while the protagonist lies in her bed, but on film, Nichols is allowed a greater playfulness which lets him drop Thompson into the living room of her childhood, sans hair and with the ever-present hospital robes on, to take the place of the age-appropriate actor we first see in the scene. Then her father appears in the hospital room, still seated in his worn leather chair, to explain how words work. It visualizes the quality of remembrance that much of the film is about. What is a life, what is living? What is dying?
It is telling, and true, that a movie so concerned with death and suffering can be so joyous. It is called Wit for a reason. The best scene recalls the earlier one with her father as Thompson asks a caring nurse if morphine will have a soporific effect. The nurse responds, "I don't know, but it will make you sleepy." And when Thompson bursts out laughing we do as well. Through tears of joy she explains what soporific means. It is the last we hear from her. The humor that is possible in such dire situations is what humanity is.