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Dammit Jim, I am a doctor, not a carpenter

The English Surgeon

The English Surgeon (dir. Geoffrey Smith, U.K.) has won the Best International Feature award at this year’s festival. While I would’ve cast my vote in the direction of Man On Wire instead (because it is interesting not only in content but in form–whereas The English Surgeon‘s content is compelling but it is not doing anything interesting formally), I must say that I really enjoyed it.

It tells the story of British brain surgeon Henry Marsh, who has been helping out an impoverished Ukrainian clinic for the past 15 years, and his colleague in Kiev, Dr. Igor Kurilets, who admits he looks up to Marsh as an older brother. The film focuses on one operation that Marsh is to perform on a poor Ukranian farmer, Marian, who suffers from a brain tumour. What might be a simple operation in London is complicated by an ill-equipped clinic and inexperienced staff. We see Marsh and Kurilets shopping for a cordless drill at a hardware store in the local market. You can imagine what a brain surgeon might need a drill for. Just not the kind a handyman might buy. The operation, itself, is featured in the film and it’s definitely not for the squeamish. I had to avert my eyes a couple times and the guy beside me sat there with his hands over his ears when the drilling started.

Marsh is a droll delight, and this serves to leaven what could’ve been shameless melodrama. Yet we see how a failed attempt to help a child in his past has left a permanent mark on his soul and how it informs all his doctor-patient relations.

While it might not have gotten my vote for the award, I still feel that it is a beautiful, facinating film about a lovely man.

→ originally published 2008-04-26

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