The English Patient
Screenplay : Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Ralph Fiennes (Count Laszlo de lo Almasy), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katharine Clifton), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (Caravaggio), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton)
"The English Patient" is a is a huge, brooding expanse of a film that intricately tangles love and tragedy and passion and anger and violence and war into one giant collage that sometimes threatens to engulf the viewer with all its complexities.
Yet, the true irony is that, after leaving the theater, I felt like there wasn't as much to the film as I had felt there was while watching it. The story, adapted from the 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, is really fairly straightforward, and the only way it is given any weight is by showing it in a cleverly devised series of fragmented flashbacks that have to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle to determine the full effect .
The film opens with a plane being shot out of the sky after flying over the sandy dunes of North Africa. The man inside is horribly burned beyond recognition, and it is his story that is told through the flashbacks. He is the Hungarian Count Laszlo lo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) who is working with a group of British cartographers making maps of unexplored deserts and mountains.
He is a rather distant man, until his inner passions are piqued by Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of one of the other cartographers. They begin an illicit affair that seems automatically doomed from the beginning because, in a film of this sort, affairs like this are incapable of concluding happily. A certain darkness constantly looms over all the proceedings because the beginning gives you a good idea of what the end will be like.
The main story is framed by another love story, this one between the horribly scarred Almasy and his devoted nurse Hana (the strikingly beautiful Juliette Binoche) after the opening plane crash. Hana has a bad penchant for falling in love with men who die (she says, "I'm in love with ghosts"), so you can't help but wince as she develops a motherly love for the dying Almasy, and a romantic love for an British-trained Indian soldier whose specialty is disarming bombs. And the story is further complicated with a subplot involving a thief played by Willem Dafoe who may have known Almasy before the accident, and may have cause for vengeance.
English director Anthony Minghella keeps a good grasp on a film that could have easily been a scattershot mess. A former playwright, Minghella has worked in romance before with "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (1991) and "Mr. Wonderful" (1993). But here he's going for something entirely different. He's painting on a much larger canvas with much broader strokes, and it's quickly apparent that he's shooting for something in realm of "Dr. Zhivago" meets "Lawrence of Arabia." According to Minghella, "Everyone is interested in pain, passion and war."
And "The English Patient" has plenty of all three. It is filled with sun and sand and heat and explosions and planes and vistas of rolling sandy dunes, so much that it sometimes feels like a J. Peterman catalogue colliding head-on with a Hemingway novel. The only reason the film never falls overboard is that true feeling is boiling underneath all this overheated passion, and the characters are always believable.
This is mostly due to the performances being top-rate, especially Fiennes who maintains an air of distance while also betraying vulnerability and devotion. He knows no country, only love, and this powerful emotion is what ends up being his demise. Scott Thomas, who has been seen in numerous supporting roles over the years, proves she is worthy leading actress. She has fire and passion, all beneath and controlled and beautiful exterior.
True romantics will be enthralled with "The English Patient," and only the most cynical won't feel their hearts twitch a bit. As an full blown epic war-drama (running at 2 hours and 39 minutes), it works effectively. However, one of its failings is that it assumes too much from the viewer. For those without a thorough knowledge of the World War II era and the cultural and geographic details of North Africa, "The English Patient" could be a trying experience because it rarely stops to explain where or when the events are taking place.
Luckily for the film, there is enough passion and heat so that most of the time, those details don't really matter.
Copyright © James Kendrick
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