437) The English Surgeon (2007) Dir: Geoffrey Smith Date Released: July 2009 Date Seen: December 7, 2009 Rating: 4/5
Geoffrey Smith's rigorous documentary The English Surgeon is such a rewarding character study because of how willing Smith is to subscribe to his subject's hard-won philosophy. Smith begins by allowing English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh to speak from a serene position of introspective authority, erring on the side of polite, clipped rumination that most associate with a veddy British bedside manner. Weary but hardly unforthcoming, Marsh tells us in his own way that he likes work with his hands because he needs to physically feel like he's making a difference and hence has chosen to do so in Ukraine, where resources available to both doctors and patients are beyond limited.
After that lopsided starting point, which to the viewer could very easily seem grandiose considering how it precedes the actions he's not-so-modestly justifying, we get to actually meet Marian, one of his patients. Smith follows Marian from start to finish, signaling a belief in Marsh's philosophy that centers the film on his grueling cycle of consultations. Marsh is a complex subject, one whose withered demeanor evaporates once he allows himself to perform surgery partly because he knows he can succeed and partly because of what he calls his "bloodlust." He's not a purely benign God-like figure: his bitterness shows all too plainly by the way he deflects his colleague Igor's requests for more concrete instructions for a 20-something girl with an inoperable tumor that will kill her in two-three years after blinding her. There are none to give and though he tells Igor that, he agrees with him that there should be something more to be said to her, something that should comfort her and will in all likelihood just be a misleading pleasantry. In this way, Smith acknowledges that Marsh's stubborn agenda is a calculated act of self-denial but it's justified. Marsh is after all brave enough to weather hours of fruitless and soul-rending indecision for the wisp of satisfaction that comes from knowing that he's made a difference. Smith capably captures that conflicted sense of self with an attention to nuance that befits Marsh's nobility. A humbling experience.