An unassuming man driven by conscience to altruism despite the burdens it entails, The English Surgeon‘s subject, London neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, traveled to the Ukraine 15 years ago, was horrified by the national health care system’s state of disrepair, and dedicated his time and labor, free of charge, to helping those Ukrainians desperately in need. “What are we if we don’t try to help others? We are nothing, nothing at all,” states Marsh, though he’s a pragmatist, not a romantic, speaking frankly and eloquently about the weighty responsibility that comes from a practice in which deciding on whether to operate—and, even more crucially, when to operate—on serious brain tumors can mean the difference between health and horrid infirmary or death.
Documentarian Geoffrey Smith commences his portrait by subtly capturing the intertwined fates of Marsh, his Ukrainian friend and neurosurgeon colleague Igor Kurilets, and epilepsy-stricken patient Marian Dolishny through separate offhand shots of the three in transit. This trio forms the center of English Surgeon, as Marsh heads to Kiev to remove Marian’s tumor in a procedure that’s never before been performed in the country, and which—for logistical reasons stemming from the shoddy state of Ukrainian medicine—will require Marian to be awake during the entire drilling-scraping-cutting surgery. However, it’s Marsh who remains in the spotlight throughout, as Smith, with suitable sentimentality that never tips into mawkishness, allows the doctor to candidly discuss the onerous, often-wrenching responsibility of his profession, which is epitomized by the years-earlier case of a tumor-afflicted young girl whom Marsh attempted to save and, in doing so, had things go “catastrophically wrong.”
This pivotal experience, in which he says he was “swayed by emotion,” forced him to recognize the terrible downside of providing false optimism, a realization at odds with his conviction in the unparalleled importance of hope. Director Smith doesn’t try to reconcile this friction any more than he overemphasizes the intense emotions elicited from watching Marian go under the knife or a final meeting between Marsh and a 23-year-old woman whose prognosis is dire. As with Marsh, the state of Ukrainian medicine, and his topic’s underlying issues of morality and mercy, he merely presents them in all their heartrending complexity.