Wit is extraordinarily touching. Based on Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Emma Thompson beautifully adapted the screenplay under the superb direction of Mike Nichols about an intellectual but emotionally cold professor, Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. This is an honest, sometimes painful, exploration of the physical and psychological effects of cancer told with humor and, perhaps most astonishingly, without a trace of sentimentality. It is also one of the few movies to explore the isolation human beings experience when facing death.

Cancer is a difficult subject matter to approach because most movies end up turning into a disease-of-the-week weepie. Nichols and Thompson collaborated on the material with the guidance of HBO, which continued to display its well-earned reputation of producing intelligent projects that the movie studios often ignore. Vivian Bearing is an unmarried professor specializing in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. While in her 40s she is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. We see the stages of treatment Vivian goes through and the filmmakers do an excellent job of conveying the impersonal, often distant, manner in which patients are subjected to their physicians.

These treatments are contrasted with flashbacks of Vivian as a professor acting cold toward her students. In one scene we see her harshly berating one of her students for failing to complete a paper regardless of his justification for failing to do so. What makes the contrast so striking is how understated it is. The similarities of the behavior of physicians and the professor aren’t labored over but simply there for us to perceive.

As the cancer becomes more progressive Vivian is able to lean on the support of one of her nurses, Susie Monahan (superbly played by Audra McDonald), who nurtures her through the pain. Christopher Lloyd and Jonathan Woodward are terrific as two of Vivian’s physicians who seem more interested in her as an experiment and lack the personal sympathy that Susie has. We see flashbacks of Vivian’s childhood where she learns her educational development from her father. These scenes are brief and handled with subtlety.

Expanding a play for the screen is a difficult task that filmmakers are often unable to overcome. You get the standard ‘opening up’ approach that feels stagy. Nichols incorporates the use of direct to camera addresses by Vivian during her hospitalization that is simple and poignant. When characters directly address the audience the effect can often be jarring, but the writing and acting are so superb because Vivian is detached from her experiences. Unlike in the play, the camera is able to use close-ups so we can read Thompson’s expressions and feel the gradual fear she develops as the cancer progresses. Vivian talks to us as if removed from her self so that we are able to experience her pain in a more direct way. There is no speechifying in these scenes. Nichols doesn’t spare us from having to watch Vivian’s physical deterioration and Thompson is simply fearless in expressing Vivian’s physical and emotional state of mind. Vivian sees the humor in the inevitability of her situation and it is here that the movie achieves a level of grace.

In the past I have not been enthusiastic of Mike Nichols’ work. I know he is greatly admired among actors and directors but his movies have often left me cold. In movies Carnal Knowledge and Closer, I felt no empathy for the characters. That is far from the case in Wit. There is none of the cynical, overly slick style of those movies. Thompson and Nichols inspire so much empathy in Vivian Bearing that at times we feel as if we are in her place.