“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again,” said Count Almásy.
In the 69th Academy Awards, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient garnered 12 nominations and won 9 of them including Best Picture and Best Director, hence this post. Minghella’s tour de force practically owns it all and is praised as the film of the year in the same year as Fargo, Jerry Maguire,Shine et al. Clocking in at 162 minutes (as it was initially reportedly to have a 250-minute cut), this epic story is clearly ambitious and tough to watch for its lengthy duration; but, it really is worth the duration.
Aviation, cartography, and fascination of African country were important points of this story – which was adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same title; but, I wouldn’t know that until one-third of the film. Initially, The English Patient is presented as a war film, highlighting the final days of Italian campaign in WWII, as we follow a French-Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), travels across battles to battles tending armies. During Hana’s initial on-screen endeavor, I was wondering who will become the titular patient. Most of her patients ended up deceased; to which she complaints why everyone who is close to her finally dies.
It wasn’t long until a critically burnt man who speaks English is introduced as he’s tended by middle-earth vagabond and finally handed over to the British. Hana finally decides to look after the ‘English patient’ who remembers a lot but his own name. The nurse tends this man in a ruined, abandoned monastery, in which she’s joined by a Canadian operative, Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) and a sapper, Kip (Naveen Andrews). As I mentioned previously, I was still unaware up to this point about those themes I mentioned previously, let alone the forbidden romance narrative, which drives the plot.
In a series of flashbacks, we learn that the man is a real life figure (in an alternate universe), Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian cartographer, who was mapping the Sahara and getting involved in an expedition in Egypt and Libya. He was involved in a love affair with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of Geoffrey (Colin Firth) – which drives the plot forward into his encounter with Hana.
This work indeed is ambitious. The in-location sets, the costumes and even special effects are exuberant (for which, it wins Oscars for Art Direction and Costumes) as pictured by John Seale’s grandiose cinematography (look at those desert scenes and other aerial shots); labeling it as a grand visual production. Yet, Minghella’s real ambition is reflected in the narrative, which works equally strong in multiple flashbacks and time frames. Minghella had a tendency to tell everything – like, literally, everything; therefore, he cramped each time frame with fragments of the main plot and subplots involving secondary characters.
Seemingly, The English Patient can still make two good films if it’s broken down by two – the past and the present. To that notion, I appreciate the works of veteran editor, Walter Murch (The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now), in handling such ambitions into a compact, comprehensible unison, even more than I appreciate Minghella’s direction. I would say that this film is a ‘working’ directorial mess; Minghella could not really restrain his virtuoso, neglecting the power of picture in storytelling and cramping the films with almost everything he shot. Murch is the one who tidied up all the mess (and, possibly, conventional storytelling) into the multi-layered cut we witness right now.
However, the real star of The English Patient is none other than the ensemble of cast. You cannot flaw the casts in any level since they’re emanating complexities in the story. There are lots of characters in the story – whether in the main plot or in sensible subplots – but, you just cannot let any of them slipped from your mind.
First of all, Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant portrayal of a man in two bodies, in two timelines, is quintessential; aspiring, ambitious but desperate in love as Almásy, yet, fragile but optimistic in life as the English patient. His performance ignites his co-stars’ flames in both timelines to steal the spotlight most of the time, without neglecting his importance. Juliette Binoche wins it all over with a warm persona and Kristin Scott Thomas with a burning one. Supporting roles lift the subplots into becoming a prominent point in The English Patient’s narrative body. From Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth, Naveen Andrews to Julian Wadham, each supporting actor excels in their own part.
Trust me, finishing this film in one blow is a tiring experience; but I appreciate everything despite its ambition that sometimes takes its toll. In final words, The English Patient is ambitious in every possible way; it is as captivating as Ralph Fiennes’ performance and chemistry with Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche as well as Willem Dafoe.
The English Patient (1996)