The English Surgeon -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- One of those documentaries that makes you feel good about the human condition, "The English Surgeon" tells how prominent brain surgeon Henry Marsh, appalled by what he saw of Ukrainian medicine while giving a lecture in Kiev in 1992, spent the ensuing years donating his time, expertise and even equipment to help desperate patients with no access to 21st-century remedies.

An already established festival favorite, "The English Surgeon's" humanity should help it draw a respectable boxoffice at sophisticated theaters and have a long afterlife on TV and in other ancillaries.

Taking as its starting point how Marsh goes to Kiev to remove the tumor of small-town boy Marian Dolishny -- a procedure particularly fraught with danger since the patient must be awake during the operation -- director Geoffrey Smith's film contrasts Marsh's sophisticated techniques with the decrepit state of Ukrainian medicine.

Marsh and his protege, Dr. Igor Kurilets, have to deal with overcrowded hospitals, inferior equipment and many patients who have either waited too long to visit a doctor or been misdiagnosed by local incompetents, so that what were once curable situations have now become death sentences.

In addition, it's made obvious that in this still-emerging post-Soviet society, jealousy of success has become something of the norm, which is why Kurilets keeps being investigated by various government bodies on spurious grounds.

None of this seems to daunt the two doctors, however, and Marsh in particular trudges through this medical morass with a combination of compassion and ironic humor: "Hospitals are like prisons," he says at one point. "They're places where a small number of people are doing nasty things to a large number of people."

Beautifully shot and edited, "The English Surgeon" veers easily between the harshness and absurdity of Marsh's work. Two scenes in which Marsh has to tell patients that their tumors are inoperable are heartbreaking. So too, in its own way, is a scene in which Marsh gifts Kurilets with several drills used for cutting into the skull, and notes that his London hospital uses, and throws away, at least 10 of these a week. To which Kurilets replies that he has the same drill, and has used it for 10 years.

But episodes like this are only a scene-setter for the film's intimate look at Dolishny's operation, a delicate affair which is endangered when the patient suffers a seizure right in the middle of the procedure.

Ending the film on a well-earned note of sentimentality, Marsh visits the home of a woman whose daughter he operated on, only to make her condition worse. Yet the woman, whose child eventually died, bears no ill will, and thanks the doctor for at least giving her family hope in what had been considered a hopeless situation. It is moments like these that make "The English Surgeon" a memorable and uplifting experience.

Opens: July 24 (Eyeline Films)
Production co.: Bungalow Town Productions for the BBC and ITVS International
Director: Geoffrey Smith
Producer: Geoffrey Smith
Executive producers: Greg Sanderson, Nick Fraser and Sally Jo Fifer
Director of photography: Graham Day
Music: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Editor: Tony Wilson
Not rated, 93 minutes