The Best of Pictures: The English Patient (1996), by Josh Long

16 Nov

Written and Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe

If you’re like me, the first thing you remember when you think of The English Patient is an episode of “Seinfeld.” In it, Elaine is forced to see the film several times, consistently hating it. Everyone around her seems dead-set on proving to her that it’s a great film until she finally explodes in the theater and yells at the screen, “Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert, and just die already! DIE!” Is that an overreaction? Two hours into the movie, watching it for a second time, my answer is no.

So what’s all the fuss about? Ralph Fiennes plays Count Almasy, a member of the British Archaeological Society who has been badly scarred from a plane crash over the desert in World War II era North Africa. As Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) nurses him back to health at a monastery in Italy, he remembers in flashback his tragic romance with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of a colleague. The story is about as dry as the desert it’s set in, but The English Patient won nine Oscars, including Best Picture 1. It wasn’t a massive box office success, but it was still one of the 20 top grossing films of 1996, and was a darling of many in the film critics’ circle.

Here’s what the film does well. Most of the technical aspects are spot on. Its Academy Awards for cinematography, sound, and editing are well earned. Sweeping scenes of the desert are breathtaking (surely even more so on the big screen) and reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. 2 The color tones are rich and warm; the visuals capture the exotic nature of the locations. Count Almasy’s discovery of the “cave of swimmers” is a particular scene where the camera deftly dwells on the wonder of the situation. Unfortunately, if you shoot rank melodrama beautifully in an exotic locale, it’s still rank melodrama.

There is so little substance to the story, it’s staggering. What is the theme of the movie? There are many possible threads (all undeveloped) but if there’s one thing I had to settle on, it’s the idea that even tragic love is worth experiencing. 3 But the movie doesn’t show us this; it just tells it. 4 We know nothing about Hana’s beau killed in action, or her friend who drove over a landmine. We’re bombarded with these tragedies before we know anything about any of these characters, and we’re expected to care about them. Almasy and Katherine’s relationship has no basis on a mutual connection, other than an unsubstantiated sexual connection. Why are they driven to each other? What’s the root of this overwhelming passion? The film uses sex as the pretext for the relationship instead of setting up a meaningful relationship, and allowing it to develop into a sexual relationship.

I’ve had the same problem with other Anthony Minghella films. 5 He introduces us to a romantic relationship but doesn’t give it any legs to stand on. If we don’t see the relationship naturally develop, we’re not invested in it – it becomes a function of the script and not a living part of the narrative. If we’re not invested in it, why on earth do we care if they have a tragic end? In addition, the overall approach to sex is almost worshipful, bordering on eroticism. There’s a sense that the filmmaker goes beyond telling the story to pore lustfully over sexual encounters. Perhaps Minghella felt sex was the validation of their relationship – there’s little more than lust that brings Almasy and Katherine together in the first place. It’s empty sex, but the film doesn’t see it as empty sex; it elevates it as if it were a spiritual experience. 6

I know admittedly little about Michael Ondaatje’s book on which the film is based, but Minghella’s adaptation is a structural mess. The story is riddled with gaping motivation holes – why does Katherine fall for Almasy? Why does Clifton leave her behind at the camp? Why is she there in the first place? How does Carvaggio happen to be in the same part of Italy as Almasy? Why do Kip and the minesweepers set up camp at the monastery? Isn’t there a war going on? Maybe worst of all is Hana’s decision to care for Almasy at the monastery; she has spoken maybe ten words to him in the film, knows nothing about him, yet she tells the army to leave her behind, alone in an enemy nation, in a place she knows nothing about, with a limited amount of medical food and supplies to keep Almasy comfortable as he dies. When Almasy asks her the question we’re all wondering – why she would choose to do such a thing – she simply responds “I’m a nurse.” Case closed? I don’t think so. That’s at best lazy writing and at worst a blinding lack of talent.

The juxtaposition of Hana’s present to Almasy’s past is meant to compare their tragic love stories, but only extends a limp-wristed effort to telling Hana’s story. So little time is spent explaining what’s going on in her world, it almost seems like telling her story at all is superfluous to the movie. Perhaps there’s much more to her in the book, but if you can’t make it fit into a script, adapt a different book. The adaptation chooses to spend time on all the wrong things. These could be rich, interesting characters. But they’re given no development. We don’t have any history on any of our major characters. What were their lives like before this movie? Who knows? There’s more background given to characters on the Brady Bunch. And Minghella makes a huge mistake in giving none of his “tragic heroes” any tragic flaws. What is Almasy’s flaw? It can’t be that he’s too timid, because he wins Katherine over without changing. It can’t be that he fell for another man’s wife, because that’s celebrated as the best thing he’s done in his life. Katherine and Hana have no discernible flaws, unless you count bad luck. If the characters always act nobly, we’re not interested. No one wants to see a two and a half hour movie populated with Prince and Princess Charmings.

The writing even drags down what would normally be a wonderful cast. Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche both have earned wonderful reputations. Binoche as the heroine in Kieslowski’s Blue turns in one of the deepest, subtlest, most beautiful performances ever on screen. But in The English Patient, Fiennes is dry and wooden, 7 and Binoche is childish and boring. Willem Defoe as Carvaggio practically defines mugging, portraying a character whose presence in the narrative is dubious at best.

The film attempts to present a sweeping, romantic epic. But the result is an unmotivated mess of gobbledygook populated with paper-thin characters. This is why, to me, the film is a failure, even if it might visually be much more stimulating and technically much more advanced than some of its contemporaries. It aims for tragic drama, but instead hits pretentious melodrama. I generally don’t like to refer to a film as pretentious. Some of my favorite films have been described by others as pretentious, and it irks me. But true pretension carries with it an “assumption of dignity and importance,” 8 the implication being that said dignity and importance are absent. French nouvelle vague films are characterized by some as pretentious, but those filmmakers were often able to stand outside their culture and make tongue-in-cheek comments about the joie de vivre and flighty passion of the French everyman. When Jean-Paul Belmondo says in A bout de soufflé, “It’s silly, but I love you. I wanted to see you, to see if I’d want to see you” it’s seen as a flighty childish thing to say. But when Almasy says “every night I cut out my heart, but in the morning it was full again,” Minghella wants us to take that in dead seriousness.

I didn’t originally watch this film expecting to hate it. I did approach Titanic with an attitude of disdain, but was able to find a lot of value in it. Not so with The English Patient. On review I was astounded anew that it garnered so much critical acclaim. Particularly that it won Best Picture over Fargo, one of the greatest films of the decade, and one that will undoubtedly remain a cinema classic. Seeing as it was followed by films like Titanic and Shakespeare in Love, it may be that The English Patient was the first to tap into a nationwide interest in period love stories, and was rewarded in Oscar gold. Unfortunately, rewarding it so meant turning a blind eye to a vapid story. One hopes that in the future the Academy will be more attentive to the craft of a film as a whole, instead of being caught up in a sandstorm of melodrama.

As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather watch Jerry Lundegaard 9 eat breakfast than watch all the most emotional moments of Count Almasy’s life. And I think Elaine Benes would be with me.

1. Only 4 films won more, and only two have tied.

2. The film owes a lot to Lawrence of Arabia, constantly borrowing both verbal and visual imagery. Still, the contrast between depth of story is astounding – Lawrence of Arabia is an ocean of character and story depth to The English Patient’s tepid kiddie pool.

3. There’s a half-hearted attempt to speak out against the idea of borders feeding the impulse of war, but it’s such a weak under-current it isn’t worth talking about.

4. The film does a lot of narrating when it should show something, and show something when it would be better to narrate. Hana’s tragic experience with personal relationships seems more real if we hear about it, or can feel her past in the subtleties of her performance. But Geoffrey Clifton’s final moments would be much more visceral if we were to watch them happen rather than have Katherine narrate his last words.

5. Cold Mountain is another with a relationship revolving more around empty eroticism than love. Love doesn’t have to be rational, but for the purposes of drama it has to have some basis in reality.

6. Not that empty sex is inherently something that doesn’t belong in movies – The Graduate portrays an empty sexual relationship as such and, in doing so raises, penetrating questions.

7. Imagine a British 5th grade math teacher delivering lines like “What do you love – tell me everything.”

8. According to the 2010 Random House dictionary.

9. William H. Macy’s brilliantly developed character from Fargo…but you knew that.

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