Maybe its release was timed poorly, or perhaps it's the distracting status of "made-for-TV movie," an HBO scrap. Or maybe it's the subject material. Impervious college professor of 17th-century poetry has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer (there is no stage five). She tries to vanquish death by channeling the works of John Donne, her specialty.
Wit is one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly the greatest made for and exhibited on television. It aired on HBO in 2001, got positive reviews, won director Mike Nichols two Emmys for directing and producing, and that was it. No fanfare beyond.
Wit is Nichols' best work (in a career that includes The Graduate), as it is Emma Thompson's, who is rapturous as the distinguished scholar staring down doom. The film further blurs the quality distinction between the big and small screens. HBO was, and still is, making better feature films than traditional studios because they can afford to be fearless.
But oh, the movie. Perfect -- every moment, every line. The pacing, the power, the performances. Thompson is, of course, the divine axis, but the supporting work is sterling, especially Audra MacDonald as a compassionate nurse and Eileen Atkins as Thompson's mentor. Nichols and Thompson adapted the story from Margaret Edson's play of the same title, but it seems to belong on screen. Very heavy, theatrical themes -- salvation, human connection, agonizing regret, isolation -- glow on celluloid. It is a feat.
And oh, these wonderful characters dovetail into a quietly climactic scene of such deep, deep beauty and power. It is my favorite scene in the movies. I fawn, yes, and perhaps it's pathetic. After all, these are fake people in a fake story. But I charge you to watch and resist its pull.
Wit is one of the most ennobling, sweetest surrenders in cinema.