THE ENGLISH PATIENT (DIR: ANTHONY MINGHELLA) (SCR: MINGHELLA, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY MICHAEL ONDAATJE)
Anthony Minghella's THE ENGLISH PATIENT was the perfect best picture winner in that it fairly reeked of class, with its gorgeous, exotic settings (not since LAWRENCE OF ARABIA has a film so strikingly captured the foreboding beauty of desert plains) attractive European actors, and acclaimed novel pedigree. And it worked on more than one level, playing as both an epic war film, and a doomed romance. Most importantly, with its great performances and well handled time shifting story line, it holds up as an excellent film.
In 1992, author Michael Ondaatje published THE ENGLISH PATIENT, basing its central character on the real life Count Laszlo de Almasy, a Hungarian who explored the Sahara desert. The book was critically acclaimed and, when English director Anthony Minghella read it all in one sitting, he wanted to make it into a film. He pitched it to American producer Saul Zaentz, who had seen Minghella's previous film, TRULY MADLY DEEPLY (1990) and wanted to work with him. Minghella scripted the film, consulting both author Ondaatje and an actual journal of Almasy's , and he also carefully storyboarded every shot. At first 20th. Century Fox was interested in making the movie, but when Minghella refused to cast big star Demi Moore as Katherine (which I think was the right choice!), the studio pulled out. It almost appeared that the film would fall through, but then independent film company Miramax stepped in to help, and Zaentz himself put up six million dollars of his own money. Kirsten Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes were all cast in important roles (this would mark only the second lead role for Fiennes after his breakthrough in SHINDLER'S LIST in 1993). Shot on locations in Italy and North Africa, the film's production was, in Minghella's own words "difficult" and "strenuous", partly because he had never made a film on such an epic scale before. But the cast and crew bonded together and came to believe in the film, and, after a lengthy five month editing process, it opened to rave reviews and eventual box office success, bringing in around $80, 000,000 dollars on a budget of around $44,000,000.
Set in Italy during the end of World War II, its about Hana (Juliette Binoche), an English nurse who stays in a abandoned building with a dying, badly burned patient Laszlo (Ralph Fiennes) with a mysterious past. In flashbacks we see him as a dashing cartographer mapping the desert of Cairo and falling in love with the married Katherine (Kirsten Scott Thomas). Meanwhile, Hana mourns the losses of both her lover and best friend in the war, and finds herself falling for a bomb defuser from India named Kip (Naveen Andrews).
The ENGLISH PATIENT begins with a stunning image: an aerial shot soars over the curves of desert sands, looking almost like the curves of a prone human body. Then we see the shadow of a small plane zooming across those sands. For a brief moment we see Katherine, a pretty young woman, sitting in the passenger seat of the plane, asleep or dead. Then the plane is shot from the sky by a German cannon. It is with this wonderfully enigmatic image that the film both opens and closes. This is a long film that unfolds its secrets slowly, taking its time to explain how that opening scene came to be. Because it cuts between two different stories in separate time periods, sometimes the thrust of both stories is slightly diminished, but for the most part the movie works as two very different love stories unfold, and the way that the two stories come together at the end, with Hana reading the dying Katherine's love letter to the doomed Laszlo weaves the two stories together perfectly. Minghella also pulls off some excellent set pieces, such as when Hana, who thinks she is cursed because both her lover and her best friend have died in the war, begs her new lover, Kip, not to go an defuse a bomb, but he calmly tells her that it's his job. This leads to him trying to defuse a bomb under a bridge while an oncoming tank causes it to shake. It's a marvelously suspenseful scene worthy of Hitchcock, made all the more dramatic by the immediate romantic chemistry that Kip and Hana have, and our fear that the tragic Hana may soon have more sadness in her life.
|Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas|
Ralph Fiennes, in only his second lead role (the first was the disappointing STRANGE DAYS) really gives two terrific performances here: first, he must play the horribly burned Laszlo, and he shows more emotion with his eyes and simple gestures under pounds of makeup than most actors can with their full bodies (the moment at the end when he silently begs for an overdose of morphine is moving without being maudlin). And then in flashback we see him as a doomed romantic lead, and again he is completely convincing. Really, this is his first movie role to display his good looks and sex appeal, and the passonate heat he and Thomas generate in their slow building romance and steamy sex scenes is almost palpable (when he tells her "I can still taste you" we can believe him!). His character is a man of few words and big actions, and it's easy to see why Katherine falls for him, even if he seems initially aloof.
In contrast to the doomed, obsessive nature of Laszlo and Katherine's romance, the attraction between Kip and Hana is sweet and charming, giving us two immediately likable and brave characters who are drawn to each other naturally. In a truly lovely moment, Kip hoists up Hana on a pulley so that, with the aid of a flare, she can see the paintings on the walls of a dark building, echoing a similar moment seen earlier in flashback when Laszlo and Katherine find some cave drawings in the desert. Although Kip and Hana go their separate ways at the film's end, they pledge to meet again some day soon, and it's to the film's credit that we both believe them and want them to be true to their words.
It's interesting to note that both Thomas and Binoche were nominated for best supporting actress awards, with Binoche winning; perhaps part of the reason she won out is that her Hana character is more likable than the adulterous Katherine, but in any event, they are both impressive. And so is Willem Dafoe as the mysterious David Caravaggio, a soldier who shows up at the house Hana and the wounded Laszlo are staying; I enjoy the way that Dafoe plays his character as outwardly friendly, but clearly hiding some dark secret. And the scene in which we see him tortured in flashback is a stunner.
There was some criticism of the film's final resolution, when we learn just how Laszlo and Katherine wound up in that plane from the beginning. It turns out that Katherine's jealous husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth), having found out about the affair, flies his plane with her in it out into the desert to meet Laszlo, and then crashes it straight into the ground (he tries to hit Laszlo but misses) killing himself and badly hurting Katherine. Laszlo drags the badly wounded Katherine to a cave and leaves her there, and with no one else around, goes to get help. When he eventually finds the English army, that assume he is a spy and arrest him. He then escapes and makes a deal with the German army, giving them maps in exchange for a plane, and it is here that the criticism begins. Is it right for the romantic hero of a film to make a deal with the Nazis? While it's clear that he only makes the deal because of his pledge to Katherine not to leave her in the desert, it's still morally questionable. Personally, I have no problem with this since the film clearly shows that Laszlo's fatal flaw is his single minded, lustful desire for Katherine above everything else. Even as a war rages on around him, he shows no interest in anything other than her, spitefully rejecting her intention to return to her husband, and boldly showing his longing for her in a way that her husband can't possibly ignore. Therefore the deal he makes with the Nazis is a deal with the devil that seals his fate; the fact that he will both find the woman he loves dead and then suffer a long painful death himself puts him in a hell truly of his own making. His willful ignorance of the world around him and placement of love (or maybe just lust) over all things is what puts him on that plane; he is too self centered to accept the world around him, so even though he is a romantic hero, he is a flawed one, one who can sell out to anyone, even the Nazis, just to accomplish his desires.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's clear that I greatly enjoy this film, and that I find it a worthy choice, although this is another one of those tough years for me in that I also greatly enjoyed Milos Foreman's wildly entertaining THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT, one of the best movies about censorship ever made. So while I loved THE ENGLISH PATIENT and generally see it as a good choice, I'm not sure if it's my favorite.