Oscar Movie Month: "The English Patient" Review

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Rating: R

Length: 162 minutes

Release Date: December 06, 1996

Directed by: Anthony Minghella

Genre: Drama / Romance / War


Adapted from a novel of the same name by Michael Ondaatje, "The English Patient" is an internationally acclaimed film. It is also the proud recipient of nine Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, six British Academy Film Awards and a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Despite its inauspiciously meandering start, flashing haphazardly between two separate timelines of seemingly equal dullness, the film slowly weaves together a coherent plot.

"The English Patient" begins with a yellow bi-plane being shot down in one of the many desert battlegrounds of World War II. Ravenous white flames consume both the plane and pilot. A short time later, a Canadian nurse Hana, played by Juliette Binoche, stays behind alone in an abandoned Italian monastery to tend to the wounds of the amnesiac burn victim found in the rubble of the crash. Though attentive, it soon becomes clear that she has quite a troubled past of her own.

A self-proclaimed "piece of toast with the lung capacity of a gnat," her embittered patient remembers nothing of his past, not even his name. Given the language he speaks and his accent, he is dubbed "The English Patient." Soon enough, a dashing Sikh bomb squad member named Kip (Naveen Andrews) and his corporal come to take refuge at the monastery as well. 

Hana begins a relationship with Kip, and through it, she begins to come to terms with her "curse," namely, the uncanny misfortune that has plagued everyone she has ever loved. As their relationship grows, it begins to mirror fragments of her patient's past, sparking his eventual recollection.

As time goes on, the English patient begins to remember his life before the crash, and recounts his subsequent flashbacks to Hana as they strike him. Through a series of fragmented memories, the audience is transported to 1930s North Africa, where a cartography expedition is in progress. An archaeological group from the Royal Geographical Society has just embarked on a quest to survey the entirety of the Sahara Desert. They are led by Englishman Peter Madox and Hungarian Count Lazlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes). 

With them, they have the wealthy couple who financed their trip and lent them their plane for surveying purposes. The unhappily married couple consists of the painstakingly dull, flat and utterly unlikeable Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his lovely but neglected wife, Lady Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).

As one might expect, the discord inherent in this particular pairing serves as the catalyst for much of the romantic drama in the film. Succumbing to stereotype, Katharine is unhappy with her marriage and privately seeks refuge in the arms of a more interesting man.

During her husband's time away, Lady Katharine works to thaw the heart of the frostily distant Count Lazlo de Almasy. Despite his greatest efforts to seem unmoved by her flirtations, she soon uncovers a wealth of poetry that he has composed in her honor. A passionate romance is sparked between the two, but in light of the insincere metaphors and graphic sexual encounters that define it, the depth of their love seems to fall far shorter than intended.

Despite the shoddily developed affair between Count Lazlo de Almasy and Katharine, it appears that Geoffrey and Katharine's marriage is even worse. Upon discovering their affair, Geoffrey flies into a rage.

Meanwhile in the present day, David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), wounded spy and possible assassin, finds his way to the monastery in which Hana, Kip and the English patient are staying. Caravaggio accuses the English patient of being Count Lazlo de Almasy and of betraying the British in the war. 

Though he does not deny his identity, the Count maintains that he did not betray the British, the British betrayed him. He returns once more to his memories of the past where Geoffrey lures Katharine into their plane and then crashes it into the expedition's encampment, hoping to kill the Count.

Instead, he himself is killed by the impact. Katharine is badly wounded, but the Count is largely unharmed. After carrying her to safety in the cave where they earlier composed their poetry to one another, he ventures off in search of help. After three days in the scorching heat, a very desperate and dehydrated Count Lazlo de Almasy finds his way to a British encampment. However, he has difficulty explaining his Hungarian name to the British, and a long interrogation is prompted. Because he is being uncooperative, he is taken hostage and transported over German lines.

After trading British maps to the locals in exchange for fuel, he embarks on the flight back to Katharine. Shortly after reaching the cave and getting her on board, however, their plane is shot down by German forces. The Count is found by the local Bedouin and transported to the monastery, but Katharine's body is never recovered.

Touched by the Count's tale, Caravaggio chooses to spare him. As the war draws to a close, the Count requests a fatal dose of morphine. Hana consents and then pursues Kip to his new post.

Despite an overly ambitious vision, a slow start, a forced romance and a mass of overly formulaic plot mechanisms, "The English Patient" manages to wrap itself up quite neatly, ending the tale as an intricately woven tapestry. The tale it chronicles, that of star-crossed lovers perhaps rivaling the tragic beauty of even Romeo and Juliet, is beautiful. Occasional flaws in its execution prevent it from being taken as seriously as it seems to take itself, but it still remains a memorable and relevant film to this day.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5