The documentary The English Surgeon opens today in New York, and since my mag review won't go up (or hit the stands) until Monday, I'm posting it first in this here blog:
Near the end of Geoffrey Smith’s superb documentary The English Surgeon, the title figure, Henry Marsh (he looks like a shorter John Cleese), performs brain surgery in the Ukraine on a young man, and the camera gets in close on the open skull. At first, I had my hands over my eyes, but as the scene went on I peeked and finally stared full on at the gray, gelatinous mass as the surgeon poked around, lifting up wet stuff in search of the huge sticky tumor that would, if left in place, end the patient’s life. The man is conscious, and now and then Marsh prods a lobe to see if he can make a leg twitch—it looks kind of fun. Since up until then the film has been utterly heartbreaking, you take your laughs where you find them.
For 15 years, Marsh has traveled to the Ukraine to help the underserved or the served-too-late. He has to tell women who bring in EEGs of their grandchildren that there’s nothing to be done, the tumor is on the brain stem, too advanced, inoperable. You stare at his impassive face, wondering how he can utter such words without breaking down. But he did once—he lost his objectivity and tried to operate on a young girl and made a mess of what was left of her life. He has never gotten over it. So he shows his compassion by the travel and long days and patients he sees who line up for hours. Heroes are often inscrutable, so who knows why he does what he does? All I know is the happiest sight of my week was a man with the top of his head sawed off.