The English Patient: Still A Masterpiece
What I Remembered: Another week has gone by and the 2016 Oscars are approaching. Therefore, once again this week I wanted to focus my attention on another past the Best Picture winner, the 1996 film, The English Patient.
The English Patient was not something that was on my radar when it was first released. This was not only for the fact that I was quite young at the time, but also because independent films did not have as much of a reach as they do today. In fact, the 1997 Oscars was the first time that a majority of the films nominated were those distributed by independent movie companies and not major studios. So, when I sat down to watch the Oscars back then I was largely unaware of that year’s Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress winner. But, once it brought home three Academy Awards it got my attention and I was determined to see it. I ended up watching a picture that I thought was very moving, incredibly well written, extraordinarily well directed and extremely well acted. In short, I thought the movie was fantastic. But after reading the hilarious novel Twins of Tribeca by Rachel Pine where she details what it was like working at Miramax films when The English Patient was being plugged before the run up to the Oscars, my feelings toward it were altered a little bit.
When you read about the tremendous egos of the actors in the film, the headaches that came with making it, and the incredibly aggressive way in which it was promoted and designed to garner an Oscar, the shine does come off it to a certain degree. However, after taking the time to see it again recently although some of the teflon had been stripped off it, I still found it to be piece of cinema of the highest calibre.
The Story: The English Patient begins in 1945 as World War II is coming to an end. Hana (Juliette Binoche) a French-Canadian nurse decides to stay behind at an abandoned, bombed out monastery in Italy to care for a badly burned and critically injured patient whose identity no one knows. The patient seemingly believes he is English, but cannot remember his own name. Thus, he is known as the “English Patient.” One evening in the monastery Hana is approached by a fellow resident of Montreal named David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe). Caravaggio was previously a spy for the Canadian military in Africa during the height of the war and a mutual friend has asked him to check in on Hana and her patient. Carvaggio offers to stay with Hana and her patient. After some initial reluctance, she agrees. Additionally two British soldiers one of whom is Indian also join Hana, the patient, and Carvaggio in the monastery.
The patient then begins to tell the story of the time he was a cartographer on an expedition in Libya in the 1930’s shortly before the start of the second world war. It is soon revealed that the patient’s name is Count Laszlo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and that he is Hungarian. By flashing back between Almasy telling the tale of his days in Africa and the present day in Italy, the full thread of the film is unwound. Almasy will inform Hana about his affair with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) the wife of one of the expedition’s members, Geoffrey. Almasy fell deeply in love with Katharine and this affair had deep and lasting consequences for everyone involved.
Technical Details: In my humble opinion, The English Patient was as technically perfect as a film can be. Anthony Minghella did a fantastic job adapting Michael Ondaatje’s novel into a screenplay and his direction was world class. The script and its characters were completely alive and three dimensional, and the atmosphere of Africa and the world pre World-War II, was captured brilliantly. Furthermore, it was expertly paced and edited and there was never a dull moment. Most importantly, though the film was completely captivating and very moving. Finally, the acting was phenomenal.
Ralph Fiennes was incredible as Almasy and Kristin Scott-Thomas was amazing as Katherine Clifton. Moreover, the chemistry between the two of them was electric, which was what made their affair seem so real. In addition to its two stars, The English Patient saw an exemplary performance from Juliette Binoche. (Her Best Supporting Actress Oscar was well deserved.) Colin Firth, Naveen Andrews, and Willem Dafoe were all fantastic and I believe this film is among some of their finest work.
End Credits: The English Patient was the best of what movies can be. It was intriguing, powerful and exciting and contained all of the elements that make a film great. It was more than worthy of the awards that it attained, especially Best Picture. It can not only stand along side all of the pictures that it was nominated with, but with the great Oscars nominees of years past, all those that followed it, and all those nominated this year. In short, The English Patient was a masterpiece. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should do so as soon as possible.