THE ENGLISH SURGEON (Geoffrey Smith, UK). 94 minutes. Wednesday (April 23), 4 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
There’s a simple meal scene near the end of The English Surgeon that’s among the most moving things I’ve witnessed in a documentary film.
I won’t say anything except that it features the titular surgeon, Dr. Henry Marsh, who for the past 15 years has been travelling regularly to the Ukraine to help diagnose brain tumours and operate on them with his Ukrainian colleague, Igor. In this scene, Henry and Igor are the guests of the mother of a former patient, and the three - as well as some of the mother’s relatives and friends - eat and toast to everyone’s health.
The scene overflows with unspoken emotion and it sums up Marsh’s work ethic and moral code. This, you come to realize, is what his life - perhaps life in general - is all about.
Marsh’s commitment to a KGB-run hospital in Kiev came about when he witnessed the country’s ill-equipped health care system first-hand. Patients with operable brain tumours were going undiagnosed and untreated, so he stepped in and began helping them - all without charging. When he travels to Kiev, he also brings Igor used medical equipment and perfectly good surgery tools that, in the British system, have been thrown away after one use.
When at one point the grimly humorous Igor says, “You privileged,” it says so much.
One of the documentary’s main threads is the story of Marian, a gentle, sweet-faced man from a small village who’s plagued with epileptic seizures because of a tumour. I won’t reveal what happens to Marian, but let me say that director Geoffrey Smith handles each scene with restraint and without a trace of sentimentality.
We don’t get too deeply into anyone’s lives - a scene where Marsh gets frustrated with a computer program is a telling one - and we come to realize that in a world of life and death decisions, actions speak louder than words. In fact, sometimes there are no words to describe the tragedies and joys of life. You just go on, and do what you can to help.