The English Patient Review

(2.5 STARS)

Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient is exactly what one might expect out of a Best Picture winner. It’s a grand, sweeping, epic love story that covers a lot of ground. It takes place in an exotic land, against the backdrop of WWII. And its technical credits—though not very subtle—are quite impressive. It’s also a major snooze at times. It goes on way too long and doesn’t do enough to envelop the viewer in the central love story. And it’s that perfect mix of good, bad, and pretentious that makes us love the Oscars and the Academy’s decisions over the years.

The film opens with a plane crash. The man aboard (Ralph Fiennes) is severely burned and also loses his memory. A young WWII nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) tends to him, and the two strike up a friendship. More than anything, Hana wants to help the man regain his memory before his body succumbs to his injuries. Enter a man named Carravaggio (Willem Dafoe). He has known this man for years and is here to help him remember. We learn his name: Count Laszlo Almasy. We find out that he was a mapmaker in Egypt during the lead up to the war. We also learn that he was in love—madly in love—with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of his friend and fellow adventurer, Geoffrey (Colin Firth).

The film continues to flash back and forth. While Almasy and Katharine’s relationship intensifies in the past, Hana finds a lover in Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh bomb defuser stationed near Hana’s Italian hideout. The structure of the film is simultaneously its biggest strength and weakness. It makes the plot develop at far too slow a pace to keep us interested (especially in the “present” sequences, which seem perfunctory). That being said, the climax brings things together nicely. It doesn’t make up for the long, often laborious road to get there, but it leaves a better-than-expected taste in your mouth when the film (finally) ends.

I also didn’t care for how solemn everything is. Do these people not laugh? Is every moment of their lives worthy of an overly serious soliloquy? I enjoy a good melodrama as much as the next person, but as some point, every good one takes a step back and offers us a moment of two of humanity. I can’t recall a moment in The English Patient that made me smile.

The acting, unsurprisingly, is terrific. Ralph Fiennes has a very tough role. He has to play two different men—one whose life is about to end, another whose life is in full swing. Even more than that, he has to make us sympathize with a man who is having an affair with a friend’s wife. And Geoffrey is a good man, too. It’s not like he does anything to deserve having been cheated on. So Almasy could easily come off as a slimy creep. But he doesn’t, thanks to Fiennes. Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche are the other major players. Neither has a very developed role, but they do their jobs well.

It’s a shame this film beat out two masterpieces (Fargo and Secrets and Lies) to win Best Picture, but now that I’ve seen it, I’m not all that surprised. It’s an Academy movie through and through, and despite its problems, I supposed I admired it on some level. For most of my life, I knew this movie as from Seinfeld. Everyone loved it but Elaine, and her hatred of it got her dumped and fired. I guess I fall somewhere in between. Not a bad movie, but not one I really care to revisit—unless I’m having trouble sleeping.

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