The dramatic question of what it is like to have power over life and death is the central theme of “The English Surgeon.” It also goes on to show the surgeon’s struggle with his own humanity.
Because of this, the film also answers the question of whether a TV documentary is worth the price of admission at the box office. The answer is a resounding “yes.”
But then truth is always stranger than fiction. This film proves it with the story of acclaimed British neurosurgeon and international professor, Henry Marsh.
Dr. Marsh was dismayed at the primitive conditions he observed in
Equally unconventional and optimistic Ukrainian neurosurgeon Igor Kurilets is in cahoots with Marsh. A steel will, a wily sense of humor and a compassionate heart keep both men going against all odds.
The two doctors laugh together at the medical equipment discards Dr. Marsh brings from English hospitals. A skilled woodworking carpenter, the good doctor fashions elegant crates in his own workshop in which to ship them. But what the two men are laughing at so hollowly is the waste they represent in terms of the rest of the equipment that is in the trashed. “This costs 80 million pounds a year,” Dr. Marsh keeps repeating over and over again so he will believe this absurdity.
In Geoffrey Smith's documentary, "The English Surgeon," low key, no-nonsense Henry Marsh is a rational man living in two worlds, a substantial one in Long and a “third-world” medical
Whether Henry will or will not operate on a young man with a brain tumor is at the heart of the film. He can possibly save his life or destroy him. As March put it, the brain business is unique because it is more than physical. The brain determines the essence of a person.
As tense and as compelling as any drama, the bond forged over the years between Kurilets and Marsh compares with that between doctor and patient in a short time of life and death urgency.
There are the humorous moments. As Marsh diagnoses patients, doling out a life or death sentence, teeming patients grow impatient and unruly in the waiting room. Kurilets
These human moments almost overshadow the major brain surgery itself. This is a tall order with the camera rolling in the middle of it, the patent awake. Even with a gaping hole in his head, religious Marian Dolishny needs to stay awake to minimize the risk of paralysis. Marsh promises will have virtually no pain but "can get a little noisy."
It is fascinating that after agonizing for months about whether to operate or not, once Marsh is in the pre-op room, he changes into a different man, a confident and even jolly man, even in the messy midst of removing a brain tumor because he knows his course of action is set.
Afterward we travel with Marsh to visit the family of Tanya, the little girl who died. He has grown close to the family over the years of her treatment. The streets are all mud, the house is tiny yet only slightly smaller than the village itself.
Relatives and friends have gathered to meet him for a meal at the big table, bringing whatever food they can as an offering. The doctor is deeply engrossed in his memories, none of which are good.
Tanya's mother notices and voices her concern, "You don't like the food?" It's not that, he explains. It is the emotion of being here without her. The family’s limited English is not enough to overcome the language barrier. So instead, Dr. Marsh raises a glass to the family, and then, just for a moment, gives himself over to their healing embrace.