The English Patient (1996) dir. Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas
I think the “Seinfeld” episode which had Elaine expressing her hatred of the film by yelling at the screen in the theatre may have tarnished the reputation of the film. And though the film took many of the Oscar’s big categories, including Best Picture, it’s rarely brought up as one of the great films of the 90’s.
But let me remind you of just how good “The English Patient” is and why it was so successful 11 years ago.
The film was adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel by English director Anthony Minghella, whose only previous films were a couple of small British indies. “The English Patient” was a huge step up for Minghella, but he succeeded in creating a film that was popular with both audiences and the critics.
The film opens framing the sandy undulations of the Sahara desert from the point of view of a WWII 2-seater bi-plane. The passengers are Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). The plane is hit by enemy fire and then crashes to the ground. Laszlo emerges bedridden and under heavy bandages from the near-fatal burns to his body. His name is unknown but he is assumed to be English. He is brought to a secluded Italian country-side home where he is cared for in peace by a French-Canadian nurse (Hana) played by Juliette Binoche. The film moves back and forth between these two periods to trace exactly how the ‘English patient’ came to be where he is today.
It’s a tragic story centering on a doomed love affair between Laszlo and Katherine. We learn before the war, they were on a cartography expedition to survey the Sahara Desert for the Royal Geographical Society. Katherine is married to Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) but slowly over time her and Laszlo develop a deep carnal attraction for each other. The domino effect of the affair eventually causes Katherine to be involved in a disturbing accident, which brings us to the opening shot of the film.
Minghella paints a canvas overflowing with mystery, eroticism, romanticism and rich visual metaphors. Fiennes and Thomas are a good pairing and their chemistry could start fires. Laszlo is curious. Fiennes plays him as a brooding, unemotional and abrupt upper classman, but in a few intimate moments with each other Katherine discovers a poetic romantic side to him.
Like the opening credits sequence, which features a close-up of a brush painting symbols on a rock floor, Minghella directs the film with an equally masterful touch. Every image is painstakingly composed, and every movement and casual look has deeper meaning. My favourite visual moment is when Fiennes and Thomas are in the car during the sandstorm. As the scene ends, he’s looks out the window and appears to see his own reflection as the burn victim by way of a clever dissolve to the future.
The romantic subplot of the emotionally scarred Hana (Juliette Binoche) and her Sikh lover Kip (“Lost’s” Naveen Andrews) is just as compelling. Hana feels people that she loves always dies, and so she cautiously approaches her relationship with Kip. His courtship of her is not as carnal as Laszlo’s and so we get the rare treat of a subplot which could stand alone as its own film.
Elaine objected to the lengthy demise of the scarred Fiennes. Indeed the film runs over 2 and a half hours. But it’s an epic love story crafted from an epic novel. The film’s subplots gain speed and converge at the end with the reveal of how Laszlo and Clifton came to be on that doomed plane. Men, check your male egos at the door and enjoy the sumptuous ride. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The English Patient