Monday, January 28, 2019

The English Patient (1996): A Review


A Roll In the Sand...

I was never a big fan of Seinfeld,  but I can empathize with Elaine's reaction to The English Patient. The first time I saw it, I too was desperate for it to end. However, with the passage of time I have forgotten all about The English Patient. To be truthful, I think many people have forgotten about The English Patient. Now it is time to revisit the film and see whether my near-total lack of memory is warranted.

I found that my original impression was right: The English Patient pushes itself into being a sweeping love story but at nearly three hours felt like an endless drive through the Sahara with no end in sight.

The film cuts from the 'present-day' (the final days of World War II) and just before the Second World War began. In the 'present-day' we have Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse who seems to bring death to everyone she loves. With them is a mysterious disfigured man who barely  survived getting shot down known as 'the English patient' even though his actual nationality is unknown.

Transporting him and others through Italy, Hana decides the best thing to do is to leave the other troops, with permission, and take herself and her patient to an abandoned monastery. Over time, she learns 'the English patient's' story, as do two other men who find themselves at the monastery: Kip (Naveem Andrews), a Sikh bomb diffuse expert and David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who is connected to 'the English patient'.

Image result for the english patientWe flow from the 'present-day' to the past, where we slowly get the English patient's story. For starters, he isn't actually English. He's Hungarian: Count Lazlo Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), an explorer and adventurer searching for the Cave of Swimmers in the North African desert. He and his colleagues are low on funds, but find resources with the Cliftons: Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Eventually, Almásy and Katharine begin a passionate sexual affair, one she eventually breaks off.

However, this kind of true desire can never truly be broken, though our lovers find the road hard, what with the war and Geoffrey attempting to kill them all getting in the way. We learn that in order to get back to Katharine, Almásy gives the Germans detailed maps of Cairo, which leads to the unintended discovery of Caravaggio as a Canadian spy (code name Moose) and his subsequent torture.

Kip and Hana's own very brief affair ends when his best friend is killed by a booby-trap on V-E Day, and Count Almásy is granted his wish for euthanasia by Hana. She and Caravaggio now leave Italy for Canada, with her carrying his beloved copy of Herodotus' Histories, which also contains his memories of Katharine.

Related imageThe English Patient pushes to be 'sweeping' and 'epic', a swooning romance that by Hour One I was thinking was one of the most unconscionably boring films I've sat through. I can see why so many thought it was so romantic and lush: there are echoes of Out of Africa in The English Patient, right down to a flight sequence filled with lush, romantic music (this time by Gabriel Yared versus John Barry).

Like Out of Africa, it has a romantic love triangle. Like Out of Africa, it has an 'exotic' setting with the very wealthy beautiful people forever declaring their love. Like Out of Africa, it is needlessly, almost tortuously long.

Try as it might, I could not get swept up in the forced sweep of these two almost insufferable pair of horny Europeans. I never thought Almásy and Katharine had this deep, passionate yearning love. I thought they were just hot for each other. Perhaps understandably hot: Fiennes and Thomas are beautiful-looking people, rendered more so by John Seales' cinematography. However, I think there's a difference between love and desire, between the emotion of love and the satisfaction of sex.

The English Patient, I think, imagines they are both the same, much to its detriment.

As the film ebbs and flows from past and present, you wonder why writer/director Anthony Minghella didn't just either concentrate on one or not spend so much time with our pair of lovers. I cannot shake the idea that the Hana/Kip romance was short-shifted: this poor nurse who feels cursed almost losing her lover to the strangest of circumstances only to end up losing him to the strangest of circumstances.

Image result for the english patient church scene
This is especially true given that Hana and Kip had the most romantic moment in The English Patient, and it didn't even involve sex. For all the 'sweeping' nature of endless desert sequences and frolics in bathtubs, the most beautiful and romantic moment in The English Patient is of Kip taking Hana to an abandoned church, then swinging her up via pulleys to show her the beautiful frescoes. The joy and delight of these two people, who if memory serves correct had not yet consummated their relationship, along with Yared's music, spoke much more about love than Almásy and Katharine's endless declarations of it.

Out of all the performances, Binoche is the only one I had any feeling for. As a side note, I am puzzled how she was a 'Supporting' actress given that the film seems to be more about her than Katharine. Binoche's Hana is a rarity in film: a strong yet vulnerable woman, strong in that she is able to take care of herself, vulnerable in that she fears that in loving there will be literal death for whomever she loves. This holds her back a bit, but she still is willing to love.

Dafoe was also good as Moose (because a Canadian spy can't have any other code name), though I was not convinced he would be so quick to forgive Almásy's actions just because our Hungarian count was enthralled with some dame. Here he was, this Avenging Angel chasing down everyone connected with him losing his thumbs, and now that he has the last man responsible however tenuously, he ends up helping carrying him around in the rain to celebrate the Axis defeat?

Fiennes and Thomas had nothing more to do than look longingly at each other and declare love over and over again. I thought they gave lousy performances, both having this rarified and stilted manner to their eternal pronouncements of love eternal. For better or worse, Thomas was the one we ended up seeing nude often, though in retrospect one can only speculate whether Harvey Weinstein's involvement had anything to do with it.

Simultaneously slow and rushed (slow in running time, rushed in romance), I think time has not been kind to The English Patient. It's one of those films people feel almost obligated to think highly of but not one they would watch unless they had to.


1997 Best Picture Winner: Titanic

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