REVIEW: The English Patient [1996]

“For the heart is an organ of fire”

The English Patient is a story of love gained, lost, and never forgotten. The late Anthony Minghella had a couple films under his belt, but I don’t think even he saw the success coming from this adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. It won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and even welcomed some mention famously in a “Seinfeld” episode. So, the real question is, why did it take me 12 years to finally watch it? I really don’t have a good answer, except that who cares, it’s been seen now. Did it live up to the lofty expectations? That’s a tough call because I don’t think anything could really match the pre-screening buzz I’ve had to deal with the past decade. However, it definitely came very, very close if not. This is an epic about events occurring on the fringe of WWII, instances of romance and passion that end up having political consequences unforeseen. Love makes us all do crazy things without a second glance at the outcome for those other than you. But, in the end, isn’t it all still worth it?

The titular English patient is Count Laszlo de Almásy who we are introduced to as his plane is shot down in a fiery crash, leaving his entire body badly burned. It appears as though he has lost his memory too, except for an uncanny ability to name every song he hears. Almásy loves to sing, as he is told throughout the film, in both his past and present, so this trick is not too out of place. He is on his last leg, the crash left him close to death, and eventually the military caravan he is apart of goes on while he and his nurse stay holed up in an abandoned Italian Villa. The nurse, Hana, has seen her own bits of tragedy during the war as her love was killed and then her best friend, seconds after talking to her, is blown up by a land mine. Everyone she loves seems to be perishing around her, so to get away with her patient is an appealing answer to the grief and anger bottled inside. The two are very alike, especially after we hear Almásy speaking of his wife, who we can only assume was the woman in the plane with him when it crashes. We won’t know the truth until we delve into the dreamstate memories of his past, the years leading up to the point he is at now. His days as a mapmaker in Africa and the affairs and dealings he participates in once the war breaks.

There are a lot of timeline maneuvering, but it’s always grounded through our lead character Almásy. Ralph Fiennes is either under burn victim prosthetics (the present) or shown whole in the desert (the past). The surrounding roles also help as we soon realize the instances with Kristen Scott Thomas delineate the past from those moments with Juliette Binoche’s Hana, caring for our lead in Italy. The way Fiennes dreams all his flashbacks make it tough for we the audience to decide whether he has amnesia or is just faking it to try and forget the past—an idea set forth by Willem Dafoe’s mysterious Caravaggio, a man that is not telling the complete truth, yet entrenching himself in the middle of the action. His past shows him in the deserts converting photographs into maps for the British army to use for the war that is brewing. It is a life of work amongst men and friends until a couple benefactors, one a photographer, come to visit. The arrival of Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Colin Firth and Scott Thomas respectively) turns the entire dynamic on its head. Fiennes’ strict bachelor finds a woman who fascinates him. A strong, educated, and independent one that just might feel the same about him.

This is not just any affair, though, but instead one with dire consequences. Those that Almásy and Katharine touch will all be affected because of the war and the sides that are forming. What was once a world of equality and kinship, with multiple ethnicities and nationalities all teaming up on the cartology project, becomes one of enemies and allies on opposite ends of a harsh brutal battle. The reverberations from their trysts are felt for years to come as grudges stay held and alliances are made. Why does Almásy keep referring to a wife when we know he never has one? What relationship does Caravaggio truly hold with him, if any? Why are he and Katharine flying in territory that risked them getting shot down and killed? There are so many questions for which hinge on Almásy remembering his past. We want him to remember because we want to know what happened to bring him to where he is, alone and disfigured, only wanting one more day in the rain before he dies.

But it is not all about this journey. We also are treated to Binoche’s Hana’s evolution as a woman trying to survive a war that appears to kill everyone she holds dear. What was to be a retreat of isolation beside her patient becomes a boarding house for Dafoe’s character as well as a team of bomb diffusers led by Naveen Andrews’ Kip. Everyone’s favorite Iraqi torturer from “Lost” was billed higher than Firth in an Oscar winning film back in 1996. Where has he been since? I don’t know, but I’m glad he has returned to the scene because he shows again here that he deserves to be. An Indian Sikh, he becomes the person that could show Hana she is not cursed. He can be a love that won’t go away, one to break her from the shell she has hidden herself behind. Theirs becomes a relationship that mirrors Almásy’s own with Katharine, allowing his thoughts to dwell on that happy time and eventually let spill what really happened.

Six people’s lives intertwine through over a decade in Europe and Africa, meeting accidentally and purposely with both large and small results. Each has a hand in the future of the other, whether they are aware of it or not. One move by any of them can be a life or death decision for the rest. As a result, this story could have become contrived to the point of absurdity in order to make it all happen. However, this fact is what makes the film so successful, because it never falls into that trap. The English Patient is natural and fluid throughout its lengthy duration with each coincidence and uncovered secret seeming to be as realistic as possible. I never once doubted the activities nor motives of any involved and while it may drag a bit around the hour and a half mark, the final 45 minutes or so make up for everything. Something can be said for the hidden truth being revealed after so much anticipation and buildup. Minghella took the novel and crafted a riveting piece of romantic drama, captivating its audience and delivering on every promise … absolutely.

The English Patient 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


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