Heal the World

07/22/2009 4:00 AM |

The English Surgeon
Directed by Geoffrey Smith

“You’ve picked my brain clean,” says one unsmiling neurosurgeon to another in director Geoffrey Smith’s handsomely shot The English Surgeon, an affecting, occasionally dryly funny British documentary about a fruitful meeting of the minds in the other Europe. The doctor of the title is Henry Marsh, a bespectacled London man with endearingly quaint hobbies (building wooden shipping crates, push-bike riding while wearing an overcoat) who for the last decade and a half has also made a habit of visiting Kiev to aid in his friend Igor Kurilets’s efforts to upgrade the broken-down Ukrainian medical system. The film follows Henry on one such trip. He fills Igor in on new devices and procedures, sees scores of patients, and all the while remains haunted by a mishandled case from his past. The good doctor is on the whole an appealing figure, though there is certainly some of the notorious arrogance of the surgeon in him.

Only the lobotomized will fail to be moved by this film, with its harrowing early scenes of still-hopeful patients being informed that their tumors are inoperable, though there’s also something unseemly about bearing witness to so many devastating private moments — particularly hearing such dire prognoses, discussed first by Henry and Igor in English, before the Ukrainian patients themselves receive Igor’s translation. But after Smith’s unflinching depiction of Henry’s removal of a large mass from the brain of a man named Marian Dolishny — who remains wide awake throughout the procedure, occasionally speaking to the camera, and whose exposed, throbbing brain gets several gruesome close-ups — the film acquits itself of emotional manipulation. For the most part Smith’s matter-of-factness skirts the gratuitous. He is intent on relating just how difficult it is to perform such a complicated procedure in a resource-deprived Ukrainian theater, and what a leap of faith that requires on the part of the patient. The English Surgeon tells a modest do-gooder story that, thanks to Smith’s realistic but surprisingly genial focus on the many frustrations involved in just trying to make a difference, is thankfully more poignant than preachy.

Opens July 24