IN MEMORY, LOVE LIVES FOREVER.
Some people will always think of this film as the one that stole the Best Picture Oscar from Fargo. Fair enough, the Coen brothers made an unforgettable classic. The English Patient may look as the kind of antiquated epic that we no longer reward the same way we used to. I was watching this film the same wondrous night that Parasite beat 1917 at the Oscars. Twenty years ago, The English Patient racked up an impressive nine Oscars. Could a similar film do that today? In any case, The English Patient remains the finest achievement of the late director’s career.
Serving as a nurse in Italy
As World War II is grinding to a close, Hana (Juliette Binoche) is serving as a nurse in Italy on behalf of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. She gains permission to move into an old monastery where she can take care of a special patient, a badly burned man (Ralph Fiennes) who can’t remember his name but speaks English. At the monastery they’re joined by a Sikh man (Naveen Andrews) who’s clearing the area of mines, and David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), another Canadian who has no thumbs after being tortured by the Germans.
The English patient turns out to remember his past quite well as he lies in his bed, dying. He was Count Lászlo de Almásy, a Hungarian cartographer sent to the Sahara desert in the 1930s on a mapping expedition. That’s where he got to know a British couple (Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas) and helplessly fell in love with the wife, Katharine…
Not true to the count’s life
The Hungarian count was a historical figure, but this film (and the Michael Ondaatje novel on which it is based) is not true to his life. In fact, Almásy was either homosexual or bisexual, taking a young Wehrmacht officer as a lover. He certainly did not die from getting badly burned; instead, he died from dysentery in 1951. The characters in this film, no matter how vivid they become, have nothing to do with real life.
What is true, and does play a huge role in the movie, is Almásy’s discovery of the Cave of Swimmers in 1933, a unique, awe-inspiring place in the Libyan part of the Sahara. The cave was recreated on a set for those scenes, which are intensely romantic and symbolize the beginning and end of Almásy and Katharine’s secret affair. The love between them is depicted as unavoidable and wildly passionate, but they don’t realize until it’s too late that Katharine’s husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth) has known about it for a long time. The scene where Geoffrey confronts them both, so to speak, using an airplane to settle things, is a shock to anyone who considers many stretches of the film somewhat sedated. Minghella engages his audience whenever he’s at risk of losing them, throwing us back and forth between the two timelines.
Fiennes and Scott Thomas are excellent as the lovers, but they’re surrounded by a fine supporting cast, including Binoche as the nurse and Dafoe as the intelligence officer who find the English patient intriguing. John Seale’s cinematography captures the desert (shot in Tunisia) in all its intimidating and romantic vastness. The emotions of the visuals are strengthened by what is perhaps Gabriel Yared’s most memorable music score.
I kept thinking of David Lean as I was watching the movie. It’s not just the desert; it’s the whole epic feel of the story and a filmmaker’s courageous decision to paint on a large canvas and allow a story to play out slowly, hoping for a powerful emotional payoff. That’s true of this film, as the two timelines sort of merge. Themes of love, sorrow and trust in times of great upheaval are delicately handled by Minghella in his adaptation of the novel.
The English Patient 1996-U.S. 162 min. Color. Produced by Saul Zaentz. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Novel: Michael Ondaatje. Cinematography: John Seale. Music: Gabriel Yared. Editing: Walter Murch. Production Design: Stuart Craig. Costume Design: Ann Roth. Cast: Ralph Fiennes (László de Almásy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth… Jürgen Prochnow.
Trivia: Bruce Willis was reportedly considered for Dafoe’s role.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Binoche), Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Dramatic Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Original Score. BAFTA: Best Film, Supporting Actress (Binoche), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Film Music. Berlin: Best Actress (Binoche). European Film Awards: Best Actress (Binoche), Cinematographer.
Last word: “I’d read the novel and fallen totally in love with it. The poetry of the writing just swept me away. So when I heard there was going to be a film, I thought: ‘God, I have to get on it.’ I went to see Anthony Minghella, whom I’d never met before, and we had a disastrous lunch. I was so nervous, so touched by the story, so overwhelmed. I knew they were thinking of me for Katherine, but that I would be a leftfield choice. I’d just had my second child and had zero confidence. I gabbled away and could see Anthony’s eyes glazing over. So afterwards I wrote him a letter saying: ‘Please just forget that terrible lunch. I am the K in your film.'” (Scott Thomas, The Guardian)