The English Surgeon

I had the pleasure of watching a screening of a stunning new documentary called The English Surgeon yesterday. It’s a film about the work of London-based neurosurgeon Henry Marsh and his colleague Igor Kurilets in the Ukraine.

However, to say the film was just about brain surgery would be vastly under value its significance, and to describe it as a meditation on the humanity of medicine would be to confine it to a cliché.

Although Marsh normally works at St George’s, one of London’s most established hospitals, he has regularly travelled to the Ukraine for 15 years to assist the development of neurosurgery in this still struggling country.

The contrast itself is striking. One scene sees Marsh and Kurilets looking through street market hardware stalls for screws, rivets and power tools to use in their operations.

One of the most gripping scenes is where the two surgeons open a patient’s skull using a Bosch power drill only to find the battery is going flat as they proceed.

The man has been only given local anaesthetic as the Ukrainian hospital doesn’t have the facilities to safely put someone under and wake them up after initial part of the procedure.

Some of the most moving moments concern the tension between the shortcoming of medicine and the hope of the patients. There are many profound moments that aren’t well captured by brief summaries, and I’m sure each viewer takes something different away from them, so you’ll need to experience them for yourselves.

It’s probably worth saying that the film is also incredibly funny in places, partly owing to Marsh’s phlegmatic personality, but partly owing to the dark humour and comic irony posed by the situations that arise.

Marsh was the subject of another documentary by the same filmmaker created for the BBC as part of their medical series Your Life in Their Hands. Sadly, it’s not available online (or anywhere by the looks of it), but let me know if it appears as a torrent and I’ll link to it.

If you want to see it on the big screen there are screenings in Norwich, Brighton, London, York, Glasgow and Edinburgh before the end of March, and apparently it will be shown on BBC Two on March 30th.

International readers will have to hope for a torrent as things currently stand.

As an aside, the soundtrack was composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and is fittingly beautiful.

Link to film website (thanks Kat!).

3 thoughts on “The English Surgeon”

  1. Vaughn,
    I in my Introductory Psychology classes, I use a fascinating clip of Henry Marsh operating on a woman’s brain, who has to be awake. He has to remove a tumor near Broca’s area, and has to stimulate the area to see where the margins of Broca’s is. He has her count up from 1, and when he stimulates that area, her speech production is interrupted. The students love it, in a macabre sort of way. That clip comes from the BBC documentary series “Brain Story” (presented by Susan Greenfield) which is available on DVD from Films for the Sciences and Humanities: — it’s also available as a bittorrent:

  2. Thanks for the lovely review Vaughan. There is no better thrill for a filmmaker than to see how a film can really touch people.
    Geoffrey Smith

  3. Wow, that was powerful! It would be nice if all doctors had such a gracious and balanced view of themselves and humanity.
    This is one of the best stories I have ever seen. Very powerful!

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