Film review: The English Surgeon (MFF 2009)

The English Surgeon
Bungalow Town Productions, Eyeline Productions

STARRING Henry Marsh, Igor Petrovich
PRODUCED BY Geoffrey Smith
DIRECTED BY Geoffrey Smith

SHOT BY Graham Day
EDITED BY Kathy O’Shea
MUSIC BY Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

Screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival, 2009-09-27

Henry Marsh is a thoughtful and skilled British brain surgeon. Surgeon, shot over only two weeks, follows Marsh on his then most recent trip to the Ukraine, where he frequently assists the local neuroscientists and does his best to improve conditions, and provide expert analysis where none exists. Marsh first had visited in 1992 and found the conditions to be practically medieval (there is actually footage from his ’92 visit and it does indeed look… gross. More than a bit tragic). The film’s bottom line, Marsh cannot see such suffering and not attempt to assuage it. In tow is Marsh’s Ukrainian protégé, Igor Petrovich, who has been working tirelessly to improve the quality his country’s healthcare. Most of our time is spent on a poor young man with epilepsy (the prototypical Soviet malady) and the operation to remove his brain tumor – which we witness in graphic detail in what is probably a 15+ minute scene. A harrowing, fascinating scene. “A normal brain has the consistency of very smooth cream cheese,” quips Marsh, who frequently keeps his patients at ease with similarly light commentary. Much of Surgeon’s interest lies in the perilous nature of Marsh’s trade. He describes the process as a sort of double Russian Roulette, with a gun at each temple: one gun representing the option of operating and its risks, and the other for not operating. Marsh frequently speaks of his strongest regret, when he operated on a seven year old and learned he had made the wrong decision; the operation crippled her further and she degenerated until death. And the film examines this wound when Marsh visits the girl’s mother at the film’s end. Frankly, brain surgery is terrifying and dramatic enough to warrant a documentary that could function without a single character. Surgeon makes no statement, has no cause other than compassion, with Marsh as its champion. I found myself loving the tone & perspective behind the film. I do love bleak Midwest, bleak Scandinavia, bleak Russia and now the bleak Ukraine. Maybe it’s the dead stillness of winter, the sky’s hued pastels, or maybe I simply find such a blankly threatening environment dramatic, and therefore tasty. I digress. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, I was pleased to learn, complemented the product with a lovely subtle piano score.

written by David Ashley