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Lashings of apologies all round.

The English Patient
(1996)

(SPOILERS) I like The English Patient. In contrast to Elaine Benes. I’m more likely to concur with Seinfeld’s disrespectful attitude to Schindler’s List, actually. Any movie sacred cow is game for assault, of course, although Seinfeld granting permission to voice loathing for this one seems particularly unwarranted. The pantheon of lousy Oscar winners more deserving of opprobrium is immense; the winners either side of The English Patient, for example. But yes, I can see that some would find it boring. I can see some would find a David Lean film boring too, with which it is commonly identified. In places, Anthony Minghella even invites that, a perhaps foolish temptation, but one that ultimately pays off.

I don’t think Minghella found this balance again in his too-brief big-screen career. His debut Truly, Madly, Deeply was essentially a TV movie (made for BBC’s Screen Two, but garnering a cinema release), while his follow up Mr Wonderful was so forgettable I can remember nothing about it aside from Matt Dillon starring (the two may not be unrelated). My reaction to The Untalented Mr Ripley was very similar to those disdainful of The English Patient (so maybe everyone needs one of those in their filmography) while Cold Mountain was straining visibly to recapture that English Patient’s epic canvas while fatally crippled by a cast with no chemistry and doubtless Harvey Scissorhands’ meddling mitts. Not unlike John Madden, who went from the perfection of Shakespeare in Love to being undone by Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, unexpected top Oscar honours left Minghella with the reputation of a prestige-fare filmmaker it would take time to disinherit.

The director, in tandem with cinematographer John Seale (a regular collaborator with fellow countrymen George Miller and Peter Weir amongst others), undoubtedly adjusts to The English Patient’s elevation in scale with deceptive ease. But then, a key contributor to The English Patient’s effectiveness is evidently editor Walter Murch. His is surely the most deserved of the nine Oscars the picture won (out of twelve nominations). It’s in the shuffling between past (the 1930s Sarah Desert and Cairo, during early WWII) and present (the closing stages of the war, located in a bombed-out Italian monastery) so seamlessly and pertinently that the picture really comes alive (or goes to sleep, depending on your inclination). My take is that Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel is sedate yet compelling, in the best sense. It has the confidence of knowing what it is doing and where it is heading and so will not be rushed to that end.

There’s a mystery here, ensuring one part of the plot retains a very mechanical drive; we open on Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) being shot down in his biplane, also carrying Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). We’re quickly shown he is the same man as the professed amnesiac English patient tended by nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), owing to the extensive burns. But the chain of events remains an elusive tease, particular when Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) arrives at the monastery seeking a confession from Almásy for being a German spy. The flashback relationship between Almásy and Katharine unfolds with classic love-hate beginnings, accompanied by the spectre of her husband Geoffrey (then-recent Darcy Colin Firth). There are gripping set pieces (a sandstorm) and expansive vistas.

Minghella is very much beckoning a post-Lean analysis then, inviting comparisons with both Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. He assumes the structural framing device of those Lean epics, delving back into the fates of now deceased protagonist or protagonists. Obviously no one, let alone Minghella, can compete with Lean’s extraordinary vision, but The English Patient is nevertheless able to boast its moments of poetry, often involving shots of a biplane floating over endless desert dunes.

The picture, in common with Lean’s best (give or take a blacked-up Alec Guinness) is also perfectly cast. It seems most of the leads were not to Fox’s liking, leading to Miramax coming in (this was their peak decade, with Oscars strewn across The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love). Fiennes arrives with a watery-eyed inscrutability both dashing and distancing; you’re unsure if he’s utterly sincere or apologetically immoral, and it is entirely appropriate to holding the character’s ambiguity until the predetermined moment. Fiennes would later comfortably assume the mantle of iconic authoritarian (Bond, Kingsman) but at this stage, he’s only really suited to the flawed type (this, Quiz Show, Strange Days) and utterly bereft at a classic lead (The Avengers).

Miramax didn’t object to Scott-Thomas (Fox wanted Demi Moore), although a few years later they’d be nixing Samantha Morton as insufficiently pretty for Brothers Grimm. The two leads complement each other transcendentally, suggesting fierce undercurrents only fine actors can. It doesn’t hurt either that they’re great at just reading things out, and there’s a wealth of reading, reciting, storytelling and anecdotalising in The English Patient.

Aatif Rashid notes the movie’s reframing of the novel, such that the doomed romance takes on more significance than the events of the villa, and I have to admit that I don’t find these latter sequences entirely compelling. Possibly it’s the Binoche factor – ironically, the only one of the cast to win an Oscar for the film – as I’ve never been enormously persuaded by her winsome charms. Possibly it’s simply that there’s no dramatic urgency here, aside from Caravaggio’s quest.

Dafoe provides the real spark in these sequences (not only would Bruce Willis have carried too much baggage, he doesn’t have Dafoe’s dangerous edge; you believe Caravaggio might cut Almásy’s throat, just as he earlier took revenge on those who mutilated him). Naveen Andrews is a very welcome presence as Sikh sapper Kip too, but it’s telling that the scene where he pithily parries Almásy’s gently patronising literature lessons is more alive than any exploring his romance with Hana. The later scene, in which he must defuse a bomb while some idiots in a tank are causing disruptive vibrations, is also electric (and memorable for playing against expectations. His would be the character often tragically sacrificed at this point; instead its Kevin Whately’s colleague, off screen, a few scenes later).

These episodes also had me pondering Ondaatje’s idyllic “world without maps” haven at the monastery, one in which no one makes the remotest remark on the mixed-race congress. It’s clearly an intentional thematic commentary, and one that goes in tandem with Almásy’s easy acceptance of the passion Bermann (Petr Ruhring) has for Egyptian Kamal (Samy Azaiez) (while the real Almásy was gay, he isn’t here). The brutal realities to be found are much more standard-issue ones, of jealous enragement leading to mutual destruction (Geoffrey crashing his bi-plane with Katharine aboard and attempting to take Almásy with them) or banal nationalist xenophobia (the British army rebuffing Almásy’s pleas for assistance, leading to Katharine’s death and his indifference to loyalty, selling maps to the Germans in order to recover her body). Of course, this is a film in which a point of profound joy spreads round the party upon discovery of some genuine, bona-fide, original cave paintings, the sort of thing miraculously discovered every few years to reinforce a model of history the current puppet masters wish to propound.

Rashid referred to a review by Sarah Miller, in which she recounted her own Benes-esque loathing for “a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end” and “about British people fucking in their colonies, and not nearly often enough to be any fun”. Which is certainly a position, and one I might even tend towards about another given picture, perhaps minus the incumbent white-liberal-guilt-apologia posturing. As Rashid suggests, there’s too much going on in the picture for that reductive verdict to be fair (even though, as reductive verdicts go, it wins point for withering venom).

There are points in The English Patient, however, where I wonder if the striving towards the moderate and inclusive and accepting pushes too far, so diminishing the verisimilitude of its period entanglements (“You love him” offers Hana, as explanation for Kip’s sense of loss at the passing of Whately’s Hardy). At others, the material feels legitimately contemporary; when Caravaggio accuses Almásy, telling him thousands of people could have died if the British hadn’t unearthed a German spy photographer, he is told “Thousands of people did die. Just different people” (an effective rebuke of the facile patriotism that leads to facile conflict).

But if I can see the kind of tone struck whereby taking a dying man for a push around the courtyard in the much-wished-for rain is a little too much, it’s always a case of varying mileage (I for one absolutely could not stomach the same year’s fellow Best Picture contender Jerry Maguire, so gratuitously fake it gave me a saccharine overdose). It’s to the movie’s merit that Almásy was a betrayer, yet the picture and Fiennes’ performance imbues his act with such purpose that you’re never in any doubt he doesn’t deserve Caravagio’s vengeance.

Miller has a broader point, of course, and it’s one never truer in the woke era, whereby one’s opinion is supposed to be tried, tested and moderated according to group think. Otherwise, pariah status is guaranteed. It would matter little to me if The English Patient were an imperialist apologia, as long as it was a good movie. The Oscars gets it wrong a lot (I don’t think Geoffrey Rush should have won for Shine, and no, not because he’s been cancelled, although Cruise was ironically the only nominee for playing an entirely physically or developmentally enabled individual, Scientology aside, that year). Not out of that year’s Best Picture nominees, though. I couldn’t quite grasp the adulation for, Fargo. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, but it wouldn’t even make my Top Ten of their pictures. Oscar definitely picked the right nominee three times during the nineties, and The English Patient was one of those times.


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