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The English Patient

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The English Patient

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Anthony Minghella
Rated: R
RunTime: 160 Minutes
Release Date: January 1996
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Juliette Binoche, Jurgen Prochnow, Clive Merrison, Hichem Rostom, Julian Wadham, Kevin Whately, Nino Castelnuovo, Peter Ruhring, Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth

Review by Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

When a book like Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" wins awards and then goes on to become a major motion picture, it raises the old question of should you read the book before you check out the film. This assumes, of course, that you haven't already read the novel before the studios decide it is movie material.

Into the press screening yesterday most of the critics had their copies tucked under their arms like fundamentalist Christians and their Bibles. In theory I'd like to read the book in advance, but I rarely do. In the case of THE ENGLISH PATIENT I am glad I didn't. Because I didn't, I had no idea where the movie was going, but I did know that I was entranced by the voyage it was taking me on, and I was happy not to know its mysteries in advance. During this review, I will do, as I always do, and tell you none of the key twists and certainly less than the trailers and most professional reviewers will.

Some movies evoke a single word, and THE ENGLISH PATIENT is one. The word here is enigma. Each of the characters start as enigmas not only to the audience, but to themselves. The film is a shared journey as they seek meaning and healing for each is a troubled soul. By the end of the film, the mysteries are resolved, the characters have stolen your heart, and two great romances have blossomed. This is considerable more than the sum of three normal films.

The show takes place simultaneously in North Africa at the start of World War II and in Italy as the war is drawing to a close. The characters in these stories are linked only by a man known merely as "The English Patient."

After a plane crash in North Africa and a rescue by local tribesmen, a horribly burnt man is sent to Italy where he is taken under the wing of a Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche). "My organs are packing up. I'm a bit of toast," he warns Hana. She takes The English Patient from the ambulance convoy to an abandoned monastery where she spends time reading to him and caring for him. When a thief who works for the army, Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), shows up asking for shelter, The English Patient explains to him that Hana's problem is she thinks she is a jinx. "I think anybody she loves starts to die on her."

Back in North Africa, Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, RICHARD III, and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL) is arriving. Her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and other members of the Royal Geographical Society are there to produce aerial maps for the British Air Force. The tuxedoed geographers view this as an thrilling romp. "Welcome to the International Sand Club," says Geoffrey to his wife upon her arrival. With them is Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes from SCHINDLER'S LIST), and Katharine greets him with the put-down, "I wanted to meet the man who could write such a long paper with so few adjectives."

Soon the Count and she are dancing, and with a single intensive stare he seduces her on the dance floor. She reciprocates in an extremely erotic scene where there stay as far apart as teenagers at a church dance. The mark of great actors is what they can do with just their eyes. By that benchmark, Fiennes and Thomas are two of the best. Both of them are playing against the type with whom you associate them. Fiennes is far from a Nazi, and Thomas isn't playing her usual wallflower role. Both are convincing as mysterious and sensuous romantics and adulterers. Although there is nothing wrong with Geoffrey, I predict the women in the audience will be secretly cheering Katherine on in her affair with the Count.

As the mark of a good author, Ondaatje, and the highly literate screenplay by Anthony Minghella, can keep adding characters without making any of them superficial and without confusing the audience. In this show, that has the scope, feel, and look of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, even more characters are introduced. The monastery's guest list adds an Indian bomb expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews) and his Sargent Hardy (Kevin Whately - Sargent Lewis from TV's "Inspector Morse"). We even have Juergen Prochnow as a German Officer, but he makes no visit to the monastery.

The desert is a star of the film as much as the actors, and it is just as perplexing. Portrayed as a beautiful but easily angered beast that is ready to engulf those who venture into it.

The intimate cinematography by John Seale (GORILLAS IN THE MIST and WITNESS) is a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination as is Fiennes's performance. I could write the whole review on the cinematography, but let me just dwell on a couple of highlights. The rose-hued scenes of the desert in the morning and evening glow and by light of the campfires at night is stunning, and the aerial sequences are breathtaking. Seale's camera is perhaps best as it caresses the actors in the close-ups.

The editing by Walter Murch (THE GODFATHER PART III and APOCALYPSE NOW) is also award caliber. He creates many scenes of precious beauty. Watch for example how as Katharine's palms gently caressing her car window in North Africa, it slowly dissolves into The English Patient sick and dying in Italy. It is as if her hand was on his face across time and continents.

Gabriel Yared's music is dreamy, romantic, and majestic with lots of harps solos, violins, and staccato piano.

All of the acting is incredible, but none is on par with Fiennes. His intensity is almost that of a James Wood, and yet he hardly speaks. Katherine complains to the Count that, "You speak so many bloody languages, and you never want to talk." My personal favorite in the film is Kristin Scott Thomas who brings intelligence and a subtle sensuality to her part.

Director Anthony Minghella (TRULY MADLY DEEPLY) has crafted a masterpiece with THE ENGLISH PATIENT. This is an absorbing and moving cinematic experience with a single flaw. Eventually, it does end.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT runs 2:42 which is just the right length. Very few films need to be longer than two hours, but this one does. It is true epic. The film is rated R for some war violence, some sex, some nudity, and a little bad language. It is a great and absorbing picture and fine for teenagers. I loved this show. I came in with high expectations, and they were exceeded. I give the film my highest recommendation and award it a full ****.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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