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The English Patient (1996)::rating::4::rating::4

I can still remember those heady days in 1996, when everybody this side of Elaine Benes swooned over The English Patient.  To audiences and critics alike, Anthony Minghella’s magnum opus was a magnificent symbiosis of Lawrence of Arabia‘s sweeping desert majesty and Doctor Zhivago‘s soapy wartime romance, recalibrated for the Crystal Pepsi Generation.  I mean, Ralph Fiennes’ five o’clock smolder should’ve snagged its own Oscar nomination, you guys.

But then, something kinda funny happened:  The English Patient, despite all its Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes, has quietly faded away. Nobody mentions it with the great films of the 90s.  If Patient pops up anywhere in a positive way, it’s usually with backhanded words like underrated or forgotten featured in the headline.  So, who was right, Elaine Benes or the swooning critics?

As with so many other things in life, the truth lies between the two extremes.  Burn away the hyperbole, and you’ll find Patient remains a pretty good time.  Is it the towering David Lean homage it was meant to be?  Well, no.  But this isn’t the humid, nauseating experience its detractors would sell you on, either.  The English Patient ain’t anywhere perfect, but it does have plenty to offer.

More on that in a moment.  For anybody who missed the ’96 hype train, here’s a quick rundown of the plot:  Based on Michael Ondaatje’s labyrinthine novel, the film takes place at the open and close of WWII.  We see a biplane, already an anachronism in the coming conflict, soaring above an endless sea of sand dunes. Some trigger-happy German gunners shoot it down, badly scorching the pilot.  He is pulled from the wreckage by Bedouin nomads and handed over to the Allies as a convalescent.

This new patient (Ralph Fiennes) is a living, breathing mystery.  He speaks with a pronounced British accent, but has no memory of who he is, or how he came to be over that remote stretch of desert.  Hana (Juliette Binoche), a kind Canadian nurse, senses some combination of tragedy and romance must lurk within this scarred, wheezing, husk of a man.  As the Allied convoy snakes through Italy, she receives permission to take her patient to the hollowed remnants of a Tuscan monastery.  There he can live his final days, and possibly spill a few of his darkest secrets.

When those secrets arrive, they do so in the form of sumptuous flashbacks.  We learn that the mystery patient is really Count László Almásy, a prickly Hungarian cartographer.  As the war begins, Almásy is part of an expedition to map the North African desert for the British Army.  The group is an amiable band of nerd-adventurers, but one catches his eye:  Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).  She’s clever, worldly, and free-spirited.  Oh, yeah–and married.  Never mind that her husband (Colin Firth) might be an upper class twit.

Of course, any story like this will demand that its romantic leads snipe at each other for a few scenes, before they come to a realize a grudging respect.  After that, you know, it’s all heart-eyed emojis!  This stretch of the film is the most compelling, as it examines the push and pull of Almásy and Clifton’s doomed love.  It also gives the potent chemistry between Thomas and Fiennes the proper chance to boil.

By comparison, the framing scenes in the monastery don’t offer the same emotional grip.  We see Fiennes in heavy makeup, mumbling through a fog of morphine.  Naturally, his mystery attracts a few visitors, some of whom may have a personal connection:  Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is a Canadian spy who was captured and tortured by the Nazis.  Kip (Naveen Andrews) is a Sikh bomb sapper who forms an instant connection with Hana.  Their love is fragile and hesitant, as she feels like a curse to anyone who loves her.  (I guess nobody’s shown her the actuarial tables for people who disarm bombs and fly warplanes, but whatevs…)

Minghella shifts between these two narratives, resulting in a somewhat uneven experience.  The flashbacks with Fiennes and Thomas deliver all the adventure and intrigue of classic epic filmmaking.  “Present-day” scenes with Binoche, Dafoe, and Fiennes present as more muted and cerebral, like a fascinating little stage play.  (It also factors in that the flashbacks take place early in the war, when a sense of romantic excitement always hangs in the air.  By 1944, grim reality has had plenty of time to settle.) When Ondaatje’s book started raking in awards, many labeled its disjointed structure as an impossible fit for cinema.  So, I guess the fact that Minghella and company were able to assemble anything coherent at all is something of an achievement.

And I think even the haters would have to concede:  The English Patient is an achievement.  If nothing else, this film could be truly savored purely on aesthetics alone.  John Seale’s all-world cinematography captures the austere beauty of the desert better than anybody this side of Freddie Young.  Likewise, Walter Murch’s editing keeps a dense, difficult plot flowing for 165 minutes.  And there’s Gabriel Yared’s haunting, elliptical score,  which only underscores the enigma of the film’s central character.  I’ll put all this praise another way:  No movie this beautiful could be truly bad.

Beyond its shiny surface, Patient also features some impressive performances.  Fiennes is perfect as the rugged, awkward leading man.  Thomas is his match, as the vibrant woman who sees magnificence within his many imperfections.  Binoche won a well-deserved Oscar, playing the film’s empathetic core.  Finally, nobody plays mirthfully unhinged like Dafoe, and here he gives Caravaggio layers of humanity to go with an otherwise broken spirit.  Add all that up, and you’ve got the acting chops of a classic movie.

Yet, The English Patient has admittedly lost some luster.  (This rating is probably one star lower than the teenage version of me would’ve given.) Why is that?  Personally, I think it simply hasn’t held up as well as anyone predicted.  It’s long, plot-heavy, and those dual narratives eventually separate like oil and water.  That said, this remains strong film.  (I’d still give it Best Picture for that year, against the same competition.) For anyone who still hasn’t seen it, hopefully you can disconnect from the hype–and backlash–around The English Patient and simply enjoy it as a rich, engaging historical epic.

162 min.  R.  Paramount Plus.


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