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
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
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