Based onWit
by Margaret Edson
Written by
Directed byMike Nichols
Music byHenryk Mikolaj Gorecki
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Executive producers
  • Cary Brokaw
  • Mike Nichols
ProducerSimon Bosanquet
CinematographySeamus McGarvey
EditorJohn Bloom
Running time98 minutes
Production companies
Original release
ReleaseMarch 24, 2001 (2001-03-24)

Wit is a 2001 American television drama film directed by Mike Nichols. The teleplay by Nichols and Emma Thompson is based on the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same title by Margaret Edson.

The film was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 9, 2001 before being broadcast by HBO on March 24. It was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival and the Warsaw Film Festival later in the year.


Vivian Bearing is a professor of English literature known for her intense knowledge of metaphysical poetry, especially the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Her life takes a turn when she is diagnosed with metastatic Stage IV ovarian cancer. Oncologist Harvey Kelekian prescribes various chemotherapy treatments to treat her disease, and as she suffers through the various side-effects (such as fever, chills, vomiting, and abdominal pain), she attempts to put everything in perspective. The story periodically flashes back to previous moments in her life, including her childhood, her graduate school studies, and her career prior to her diagnosis. During the course of the film, she continually breaks the fourth wall by looking into the camera and expressing her feelings.

As she grows increasingly ill, Vivian agrees to undergo more tests and experimental treatments, even though she realizes the doctors treating her, including former student Jason Posner, see her less as someone to save and more as a guinea pig for their treatments. The only person who seems to care for her as a person is Susie Monahan, one of the nurses on the staff.

Late in Vivian's illness, the only visitor she receives in the hospital is her former graduate school professor and mentor, Evelyn Ashford, who reads her excerpts from Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. As she nears the end of her life, Vivian manages to maintain her dignity and wit even as she is finally confronted with her own frailty and need for compassion.

Vivian dies at the end of the film, with her voiceover reciting "death be not proud".



In preparation for the role of Vivian Bearing, Emma Thompson shaved her head, following in the footsteps of actresses such as Kathleen Chalfant and Judith Light, who had performed the role on stage.[1]

The film was shot at the Pinewood Studios in London.[2]

The soundtrack includes a number of classical pieces, including the Serenade Adagio from Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 15, Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, the second movement of Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), and The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives.


Critical response

The film was received with general acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a score of 83% based on reviews from 12 critics.[3]

Eddie Cockrell of Variety called the film "shrewd and triumphant" and "focused, emotionally draining and ultimately inspiring" and added, "The risks in filming such a theatrical experience are enormous, yet the original material has been carefully and smartly reworked for the screen by Thompson and Nichols . . . Subtle yet crucial shifts from theatrical to film conventions abound, reaffirming Thompson's skill as both writer and actress . . . as well as Nichols' proven track record with theatrical properties."[2]

Caryn James of The New York Times observed, "Emma Thompson gives one of her most brilliant performances as Vivian Bearing...Mr. Nichols and Ms. Thompson, who wrote the script together, have made minimal changes to the play, but those amount to a major transformation. They have preserved Ms. Edson's language and intense focus on Vivian's hospital room as she endures eight months of brutal experimental chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. But Mr. Nichols's visual choices turn this into a fluent, gripping television film...The hospital staff around her is played beautifully by actors who escape the hazards of clichés. As Jason, a young doctor proud of the A minus he once got in Vivian's poetry course, Jonathan M. Woodward makes his character's callowness and insensitivity believable. As Susie, the nurse whose total compassion makes her Jason's opposite, Audra McDonald is especially impressive because the character could so easily have been treated with condescension...E. M. Ashford is played with unerring delicacy by Eileen Atkins in a performance that matches Ms. Thompson's brilliance.... [L]et's not pretend that Wit is fun or necessarily soothing; frankly, it is depressing. But if you miss this version, you will also miss a rare experience."[4]

In his July 3, 2008 blog, Roger Ebert recalled naming Wit one of the year's best on his Best Films of 2001 program with Richard Roeper, even though it never opened theatrically. He described it as "both intelligent and heartbreaking" and called Emma Thompson's performance "her best work on film." He said when he tried to watch the DVD in later years, he discovered "I actually could not watch the movie. I remembered it too clearly, perhaps, and dreaded re-living it. When I reviewed it, its situation was theoretical for me, and I responded to the honesty and emotion of the drama. Since then, I have had cancer, and had all too many hours, days and weeks of hospital routine robbing me of my dignity. Although people in my situation are always praised for their courage, actually courage has nothing to do with it. There is no choice."[5]

Critics from The A.V. Club,[6] New York Magazine,[7] Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle[8] and The Wall Street Journal,[9] among others, also praised the film and its performances. Nichols' direction was lauded in many reviews as well.


Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Mike Nichols Nominated
Special Prize of the Ecumenical Jury Won
Humanitas Prize PBS/Cable Television Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols Won [10]
National Board of Review Awards Best Film Made for Cable TV Won [11]
Online Film & Television Association Awards Best Motion Picture Made for Television Won [12]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Emma Thompson Nominated
Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Christopher Lloyd Nominated
Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Audra McDonald Nominated
Best Direction of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Nominated
Best Writing of a Motion Picture or Miniseries Won
Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Nominated
Best Editing in a Motion Picture or Miniseries Nominated
Peabody Awards Avenue Pictures in association with HBO Films Won [13]
Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Made for Television Movie Mike Nichols, Cary Brokaw, and Simon Bosanquet Won [14]
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Emma Thompson Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie Audra McDonald Nominated
Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or a Movie Mike Nichols Won
Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Movie Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols Nominated
Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special Ellen Lewis, Juliet Taylor, and Leo Davis Nominated
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special John Bloom Won
Television Critics Association Awards Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials Nominated [15]
Valladolid International Film Festival Golden Spike Mike Nichols Nominated [16]
Best Actress Emma Thompson Won
Christopher Awards Television & Cable Mike Nichols, Emma Thompson, Simon Bosanquet,
Julie Lynn, Charles F. Ryan, Michael Haley, and
Cary Brokaw
Critics' Choice Awards Best Actress in a Picture Made for Television Emma Thompson Nominated [17]
Golden Globe Awards Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Nominated [18]
Best Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television Emma Thompson Nominated
Producers Guild of America Awards David L. Wolper Award for Outstanding Producer of Long-Form Television Mike Nichols, Cary Brokaw, and Simon Bosanquet Nominated [19]
Satellite Awards Best Motion Picture Made for Television Nominated [20]
Best Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television Emma Thompson Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie Nominated [21]
Online Film & Television Association Awards Television Hall of Fame: Productions Inducted [22]

Home media

HBO Home Video released the film in 16:9 format on DVD on September 11, 2001.


  1. ^ New York Times article, March 18, 2001
  2. ^ a b Variety review
  3. ^ "Wit". Rotten Tomatoes.
  4. ^ Caryn James (March 23, 2001). "Death, Mighty Thou Art; So Too, a". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2009-07-28. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  5. ^ "Roger Ebert's Journal". Archived from the original on 2009-04-17. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
  6. ^ Keith Phipps (2002-04-19). "Wit". The A.V. Club. The Onion.
  7. ^ New York Magazine review
  8. ^ San Francisco Chronicle review
  9. ^ The Wall Street Journal review
  10. ^ "Past Winners & Nominees". Humanitas Prize. Retrieved June 11, 2022.
  11. ^ "2001 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  12. ^ "5th Annual Television Awards (2000-01)". Online Film & Television Association. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  13. ^ "Wit". Peabody Awards. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  14. ^ "Wit". Emmys.com. Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved July 13, 2021.
  15. ^ Goodman, Tim (June 17, 2001). "The critics have their own awards / If nothing else, July's ceremony proves that we don't hate everything". SFGate.com. Archived from the original on April 21, 2023. Retrieved April 21, 2023.
  16. ^ "46th Valladolid International Film Week". Valladolid International Film Festival. November 3, 2001. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  17. ^ "The BFCA Critics' Choice Awards :: 2001". Broadcast Film Critics Association. January 11, 2002. Archived from the original on January 7, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  18. ^ "Wit – Golden Globes". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  19. ^ McNary, Dave (March 3, 2002). "Producers plug 'Rouge'". Variety. Archived from the original on September 23, 2017. Retrieved September 22, 2017.
  20. ^ "International Press Academy website – 2002 6th Annual SATELLITE Awards". Archived from the original on February 1, 2008.
  21. ^ "The 8th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards". Screen Actors Guild Awards. January 29, 2002. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  22. ^ "Television Hall of Fame: Productions". Online Film & Television Association. Retrieved June 26, 2023.