The English Patient: It’s Certainly Something

For early humans, painting in caves, protected environments from the outside influences of heat and moisture, proved to be essential in passing along knowledge and understanding of the early lives of the people who painted them. These paintings, which span the globe, can depict everything from people to hunting habits. The people can vary, the paintings can change from artist to artist, but what remains the same is the fundamental struggle to survive that defined all of our earliest ancestors. 

 

These paintings remind us that, while we humans of today live in a substantially different world than the humans of many thousands of years ago, we are still fundamentally the same race that painted those things on the rocky walls of a cave. We have dreams, we have fears, we have loves, and we have an amazing ability to form truly meaningful relationships with other humans around us. In short, we’re probably more similar to those people than we are different. Our humanness transcends space and time and bonds us to our past, and can even guide us to our future. This is true of not only us humans today, but for every past generation of people all over the world. 

 

When it comes to this week’s film, The English Patient, director Anthony Minghella dives into all these topics, finding threads that two vastly different people have in common and intertwining them into one cohesive, if dull, story. Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) is a man on a mission to find literal cave paintings in the desert, one link to our past, but ends up finding love and meaning in life before it’s cut short in a tragic accident. He’s a man that connects with his own past throughout the movie, remembering all that makes us human: fear, love, and especially loss. 

Now, for the rest of the film.

 

Plot

 

The film opens with a man flying a bi-plane across the desert sand dunes. As the scene progresses, it’s revealed that the man has a blonde-haired passenger. Shortly thereafter, he’s shot down by Germans in the desert and he is burned in the fire. We don’t know what has happened to his passenger, nor do we know anything about him. 

 

He’s found by allied soldiers with only a well-worn copy of the histories of Herodotus. When he becomes too frail to be moved by the allies (who are currently fighting World War II in Italy) he is left with the caring nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) in an abandoned monastery. From there, he slowly regains his memories, thanks, in part, to the book, and he retells his story to a number of visitors including Hana, the mysterious ex-spy Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh bomb-disposal soldier working in conjunction with the British army. 

 

As his life story unfolds, we see that, while Count Almasy was combing the desert for the Cave of Swimmers, he meet, and slowly fell in love with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a newly married woman who is unhappy with her choice of husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth). 

 

The film throws us back in the past in semi-regular intervals to answer questions for us in the present day. Who was Almasy? Why was he in the desert? What happened to Katharine? Why was he flying the airplane in the beginning of the film? 

 

From there, the story compounds with each of the characters feeling the outside pressures of the war at hand and confront their own pasts. The stories become intertwined and pack the entire film with narrative sustenance to keep us going for the entire film. 

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The English Patient is a complex film with many subplots. And yet, the subplots are better for a book, rather than a film. If the original book was converted to a Netflix series, for instance, the subplots with the cast of characters would have been compelling and engrossing. 

 

In general, I really like the story of Almasy and Katharine, but the rest just falls short. The movie has a foundation, but shaky walls that force the roof to cave in. 0. 

 

Writing

 

The English Patient is originally based on the book of the same name written by Michael Ondaatje in 1992. It was adapted for the screen by Minghella and the screenplay was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 69th Academy Awards.

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From the outset, the film is poetic and somewhat romantic, too. Some of the dialogue features characters with their heads in the clouds just enough to be poetic but not enough to be tacky. The script is direct when it needs to be and beats around the bush, in a good way, as just the right moments. 

 

This gives us a deep understanding of how the characters view the world, but also how they see their compatriots. The writing in The English Patient is excellent, to me, as it is thoughtful and forced me to be thoughtful, as well. 1. 

 

Sound

 

The score for The English Patient was composed by Gabriel Yared and the score won the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score.

 

Perhaps most interesting about this film is its general lack of music. It’s not silent like No Country For Old Men, but it does stand in contrast with the other winners from the 1990s that I’ve reviewed that were full of music, especially Braveheart and American Beauty. What score there is though reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia, evoking a sense of “bigness” and stark beauty. 

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Even more interesting is the amount of music that comes from the mouth of Almasy. Everyone who spends any time with him believes that he knows every song that ever was. His musical knowledge, plus his singing ability, fill space in a pleasant and unexpected way. 1.

 

Set

Since Almasy is shown on the screen to be severely burned, then you must “burn” him for every single shot. This is the first film on this list since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that had great makeup for its character. The makeup worn by Ralph Fiennes to portray a burnt Almasy took five hours to apply every single day. To help him remain in character, Fiennes would insist that the makeup be applied to his whole body every day even though many shots are just of his head and hands. The makeup makes him unrecognizable and helps to sell the details in this movie.

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As for the physical world of The English Patient, the film was shot primarily on location between Italy and Tunisia. So the monastery where Almasy is cared for is a real Italian monastery in Italy. Additionally, the detail on the set steals the show. When making a historical movie, every single detail must match the era and The English Patient pulls off 1940s Italy beautifully. 1. 

 

Cinematography

John Seale was the director of photography for The English Patient, winning Best Cinematography at the 69th Academy Awards. 

 

For this film, Seale took a two-step approach to shooting. Firstly, his shots are intimate and personal. There are many close up shots in the film, which convey emotion effectively. These are best for Hana experiencing her loss and grief, or for Caravaggio’s pain. 

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On the other hand, Seale’s shots are wide and sweeping, overseeing the landscape of the desert with a beauty that we haven’t seen since Lawrence of Arabia. In a way, the desert is a character in the movie, just like any actual people are. 

Finally, I want to talk about framing. Seale not only adheres to the rule of thirds in this film but also uses the world to frame his characters. This is accomplished through latticework in the walls or by windows. My favorite use of this technique was about halfway through the film. Caravaggio is playing records for the burned Almasy. Caravaggio, who is sitting by his bedside, is framed with Almasy through the loop in the phonograph’s horn. This effect is not utilized often, but it is effective when it is. 1. 

 

Acting

To be honest about Ralph Fiennes, who plays Count Almasy in The English Patient, I’ll watch him in almost anything. I find that he’s compelling and can play almost any role out there. For me, he’s most notable at Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series and as M. Gustave. in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. He also plays Amon Göth in Schindler’s List, which will be on this blog. 

 

Both of those characters are fantastical in some way with Lord Voldemort being an actual fantasy villain and M. Gustav being so over-the-top dramatic that he might as well be a fantasy, too. But to see him as Almasy shed a new light on my appreciation of Fiennes as an actor. 

 

Almasy is, in general, not likable in the early portions of the film. He’s consistently a jerk. As the film wears on, though, and as we see more and more flashbacks, we come to realize that Almasy is an exceedingly intelligent man with a passion for history and the desert. Even though he’s European, he seems to feel at home in the wastes of the Sahara. His romance with Katharine begins small, but through a series of very authentic interactions with her, most notably when the two are trapped together during a sandstorm, Almasy is seen to be quite charming and a little bit romantic. He never does lose his jerk side, though. 

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His accident, as expected, changes him drastically. From then on, he’s a man left with only scars and a bunch of burns. This doesn’t make him any less of a dynamic character, though. Almasy is introspective while he’s bedridden, lamenting where his life has taken him. But through it all, he retains this innate sense to grow close to those around him in powerful ways. This worked on me too, as I felt a real sense of compassion for the man by the end of the film. 

 

Fiennes received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for this role but did not win. 1. 

 

Directing

 

Anthony Minghella takes the director’s chair for The English Patient. He won one of the film’s nine Oscars in this role. 

 

As I said before, this film is influenced by a number of different sources, most notably, Lawrence of Arabia. Deserts for all their arid environs and stark landscapes are perfect for the abstract, a canvas begging for boldness within its frames. This movie is certainly no exception. It is a tribute to the type of loneliness that comes with loss, and injury. Every man has his battles, but every man must fight his battles largely alone. 

 

This, in a way, is one of the truly remarkable things about this movie. Roger Ebert said in his 1996 review of the film “[The English Patient] is told with the sweep and visual richness of a film by David Lean, with attention to fragments of memory that evoke feelings even before we understand what they mean.” Truly. The desert is not only a place where love is found for Almasy and Katharine but it is also a romantic location, filled with wonder, mystery, and peril. The desert allows the characters to flourish with few literal and metaphorical distractions. 

I’ve written above that The English Patient does many things very well. It’s acting is tremendous, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the writing is poetic. And yet, when I initially sat down to write this post, I ended up repeating “The English Patient is…” in my head about a thousand times without making any actual progress in defining what the movie really is. I watched the movie over two sittings, one before our vacation and then another sitting several weeks later.  What I learned is that I did everything I could, made all the excuses I could in order to not watch the movie again. Frankly, that’s probably the most damning thing against it. It’s not just its length, but also its failure to lure me into the world, to lay awake at night thinking about it. After about six weeks of contemplating the movie, I can say for certain that The English Patient is a movie. That’s it. 

 

For all the good it does, this film is a testament to the fact that yes, most everything can be done well, maybe even flawlessly, but I can still end up hating it. For weeks it was hard to pin down exactly what I didn’t like about it. The movie is character-driven and I’m okay with that. Yes, The English Patient is perfect Oscar bait, but that’s not why I hated it. There have been plenty of others that I’ve written about that fall into that category that I loved including Moonlight and Birdman. I am okay with these kinds of movies. But I don’t dislike it in the same way as, say, The Greatest Show on Earth. That was just a train wreck. 

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What really grated on me was that Minghella tries so hard to develop all the pressures on the characters outside of the central theme of love, and yet it doesn’t work. Sure, the film takes place in World War II and war is, as I’ve written many, many times, a terrible thing. But the war is not developed. For Hana’s story arc, we’re supposed to assume that the war has forced her to suffer immense pain and personal loss. And, from a factual standpoint, it certainly has. She lost her lover at the beginning of the film, and another one of her friends shortly thereafter. But I feel nothing for Hana as the film wears on. A great film should force me to feel something about a particular character’s life, rather than having to constantly remind myself that yes, the person has had a difficult life. 

 

Another example is Caravaggio’s arc. He got his thumbs cut off and has become addicted to morphine. The Germans tortured him and cut off his thumbs and now he’s seeking revenge. This is an arc that I can get behind. Caravaggio is certainly compelling as he is mysterious, but the story feels too rushed or glossed over to me. Minghella tries to fit so many different elements into a film that, frankly, didn’t really need them. Caravaggio and Kip are both important characters to the book, I’m sure, but they aren’t needed here. Removing them would allow the movie to breathe better, I believe. 

 

When it comes to telling stories, they should resemble a mountain and a valley. The valley is the exposition at the beginning of the story, the climb up the side of the mountain is the rising action, and the peak of it is the climax of the story. Everything after the climax is just resolution. For The English Patient, the mountain is more like a slight rise. There are few moments during which time I was utterly transfixed. Plenty of movies do this, but ones that win Best Picture shouldn’t be. A climax doesn’t have to be a great battle between good and evil for me and, again, I’m good with dramas. But this film is just dull, through and through. 0. 

 

Bonus Points

None. 

 

Final Score: 5/10

 

Oscar Facts

The English Patient won the 69th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 24, 1997, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The film beat out Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, and Shine for Best Picture. The award was presented by Al Pacino and accepted by producer Saul Zaentz. The English Patient received the most nominations with 12 and the most awards with nine. Only Fargo had more than one Oscar. 

Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor, Frances McDormand took home Best Actress. Cuba Gooding, Jr. won Best Supporting Actor, and Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Hana in The English Patient. Billy Crystal hosted the ceremony. 

 

Next Week

It’s good to push another blog out. I know some of you are surprised that I’m not dead after all. Through at least the end of 2019, I may be posting sporadically. I’m currently working on another job as a sportscaster and this eats up my weekends. Regardless, I will see this through to the end! Next week, I’ll take a detour and flashback to last year’s Best Picture winner, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. After that, I’ll start my first two looks at director Vincente Minnelli with 1951’s An American in Paris and 1958’s Gigi. After that, it’s Hamlet, Out of Africa, Ordinary People, Oliver!, Tom Jones, and All the King’s Men. 

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