West End Movie Group

Stories of our Lives

© 2011 Linda Tiessen-Wiebe Contact Me


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“It appears to be a matter of life and death.”
Mike Nichols directs this mesmerizing adaptation of Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. English literary scholar Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) has spent years deciphering and interpreting the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Alas, she is a person who has cultivated her intellect at the expense of her heart. Both colleagues and students view Bearing as a chilly and aloof person lost in her private world of words and arcane musings. At the age of 48, she is diagnosed with stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) wants her to take eight high-dose experimental chemotherapy treatments for eight months. He warns her that she will need to be "tough" — to rely upon large reserves of inner courage and willpower. Every dying person is a book, and it is a privilege to be present for the final chapter. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has noted: "People die in character." Through several flashbacks we gain insights into Vivian's life: an encounter with her mentor E. M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins), who warns her to spend more time with friends; a special moment as a child with her father (Harold Pinter), who encourages her delight in words and their intricate meanings; and several moments with students in need who were not treated compassionately. (from Spirituality & Practise review below)


Read reviews by A.V. Club and Spirituality and Practice

Questions For Discussion

About The Movie

  1. In what ways does the sparse hospital setting evoke or repel you the viewer?

  2. Vivian Bearing and her mentor Evelyn Ashford were both scholars with high standards and an uncompromising approach to literature. In what ways, if any, were they different?

  3. 'Wit', based on Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pullitzer Prize-winning play, uses post-modern techniques like talking out of character to the audience, and even stepping outside the plot periodically. What effect does this have on you the viewer?

  4. Vivian saw her own sophisticated pretension in her doctors' lack of personal touch. She was no longer the teacher but the 'taught'. How did this irony deepen the movie?

  5. Vivian’s attitude and her take on her experience seems to change as her treatment progresses. Describe this change.

  6. The poet John Donne poem referenced in the movie talks about death as a pause. How do you think the movie shows this?

  7. In what ways was Vivian a strong person? How was she weak? In what ways was she healed from her personality defenses?

  8. What role do Dr. Kelekian and Jason Posner play in Vivian’s journey?

    About The Themes
  9. The movie tagline is “It appears to be matter of life and death.” How is this movie about life?

  10. The writer Ken Wilber says healing can occur at a social and personal level whether or not we are physically cured. In what ways do you think Vivian was healed?

  11. From the movie, what do you think 'metaphysical wit' is about?

  12. One of the songs from the soundtrack is "The Unanswered Question", composed in 1906 by American composer Charles Ives. How do you think the song expresses the movie's themes?

  13. What did Vivian learn about being human that she didn't before her cancer?

  14. Vivian's teacher, Evelyn Ashford, said about John Donne's 'Death Be Not Proud' poem: "It reads, 'And death shall be no more' comma 'death, thou shalt die.' Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting." How does a comma make a difference in how we imagine death?

  15. Why do you think Vivian was so into John Donne?

  16. John Donne's poem about death, written when he himself had smallpox, echos the Apostle Paul's question in his letter to the Corinithians: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" What other Scriptural texts does the movie connect with?

    About Our Lives
  17. How do you deal with your own anger? Have you ever had to confront someone who’s wronged you? Did you side with mercy or vengeance?

  18. The movie speaks to the need for us to come to terms with our own unconscious anger, passed on to us by our parents and culture of origin. What message did you hear?

  19. Ossie said from the pulpit that the boxing match was a forum to allow him to share God's gift with others. Yet later you realize there are other motivations involved as well. What were they? What can we do when we realize that we have mixed motivations for our actions?
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