"The English Patient"
Opened: November 22, 1996 Rated: R
"The English Patient" is not quite everything you will hear about it. It isn't the best picture of the year, it isn't film-making as it is supposed to be. But it is heart-breakingly poetic, it is beautifully directed and acted, and it is a brilliant film that is only slightly derailed by its own breadth and scope.
Adapted by director Anthony Minghella (who made the wrenchingly romantic "Truly Madly Deeply") from Michael Ondaatje's captivating novel set during the Second World War, the film deftly juggles multiple storylines and unravels several layers of each with the returning memories of a mysterious plane crash victim being nursed through his last days.
The story of the patient (Ralph Finnes), who is dying of burns suffered when his plane was shot down over North African desert, is told in flashbacks. He was a Hungarian count who worked a surveyor for the English. He has had a passionate and ultimately doomed love affair with a colleague's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) which led to the husband's suicide, the patient's imprisonment and escape, and the plane crash that has left him dying.
In Tuscany in the film's present, his nurse (Juliette Binoche) eases his physical pain with morphine while trying escape a painful world of her own in which everyone she cares about has died in the war.
As they hide in a bombed-out monastery, they are joined by an Sikh mine-sweeper who romances the nurse and a stranger named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) who is hunting the man he blames for his capture and torture at the hands of the Nazis.
Alternating between the heat of the romance in the desert and the cool of the monastery in the Italian countryside, the film trades on images and characters that appear to be one thing, but change and change again from moment to moment, scene to scene.
Opening with a shot that looks like a woman's soft back, the camera pulls back to reveal it is really the vast and wind-blown desert. A scene between Finnes and Thomas, that begins with a vicious slap and a torn dress, looks to become torrid but instead transitions into a tender post-coitial conversation while Finnes repairs her dress with a needle and thread.
"The English Patient" is emotionally draining and visually stunning. There is so much to take in, it's the kind of movie you may need to see twice to answer all your questions. Oscar nods are assured for Minghella's direction and script, John Seale's cinematography, and are likely for Finnes, Thomas and Binoche in the acting categories.
The only real downfall of the film is in the editing. Not so much how it was edited, although the back and forth in time is somewhat dizzying, but that it was edited at all. There is just too much to take in, even though the film is more than two hours long.
Some character's histories and some relationship-building are lost to the cutting room floor. The love story between the nurse and a mine-sweeper comes as a bit of a surprise, as does the sweeper's emotional devastation when another soldier, who seemed to be merely an extra, is killed.
But these are quibbles with what is largely an epic wonder that will quickly be considered a classic. "The English Patient" may not be the best picture of 1996 (although it could win the Oscar), but it may be the most fondly remembered.