Based on the Margaret Edson play, Vivian Bearing is a literal, hardnosed English professor who has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. During the story, she reflects on her reactions to the cycle the cancer takes, the treatments, and significant events in her life. The people that watch over her are Jason Posner, who only finds faith in being a doctor; Susie Monahan, a nurse with a human side that is the only one in the hospital that cares for Vivian’s condition; and Dr. Kelekian, the head doctor who just wants results no matter what they are. (imdb)
Emma Thompson delivers a brave, heartfelt, and punishing performance in this poignant film, chosen as the closing night gala at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. The role of Professor Vivian Bearing, a renowned lecturer diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, requires Thompson to sacrifice her hair, and her dignity, for a role most actors would give much more than that for. But while this faithful adaptation of Margaret Edson’s off-Broadway play is an ideal vehicle for its star’s dramatic and comedic talents, its main preoccupations – poetry and death – make it a tough slog for viewers.
Edson’s primary conceit is to have Thompson’s rigid spinster academic – a woman who has dedicated her life to the mysteries of John Donne’s sonnets – placed at the mercy of an efficient but unfeeling medical establishment. Advised by her physician (Christopher Lloyd) to endure crippling bouts of chemotherapy, Vivian finds her formidable intellect counts for nothing in an environment that regards her merely as a research tool. Too late perhaps, Vivian realises a little kindness goes a long way.
Director Mike Nichols makes few attempts to open out Edson’s original play: most of the action takes place around Vivian’s hospital bed, with Thompson speaking directly to camera in an overtly theatrical fashion. In some cases this might be a weakness, but here it seems fitting for such an intimate piece. Sadly the film’s admirable restraint eventually gives way to a lachrymose mawkishness which will have one half of the audience wiping their eyes and the other reaching for the sickbag.