Miramax // 1996 // 162 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // November 8th, 2004
"When were you most happy?"
"When were you least happy?"
The English Patient stormed the Oscars in 1997, winning nine of the twelve Academy Awards for which it was nominated. In the process, it became the first major success for Miramax's much-maligned yet remarkably successful Oscar campaign machine.
Young Hana (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) is a French-Canadian nurse serving with the army in Italy in the waning days of World War II. She believes herself cursed -- everyone she loves seems destined to meet a grisly end. When her best friend dies in a jeep that runs over a land mine, Hana simply wants to separate herself from everyone that she might possibly come to care about, so that her curse will not kill them too. She convinces her superiors to let her stay behind in an abandoned monastery with a mysterious patient. This man, unidentifiable under severe burns and apparently suffering from amnesia, is only known as the English patient.
The only clue to the mystery man's identity is his one remaining personal possession: an old volume of Herodotus, stuffed with pictures, notes, letters, and keepsakes. As history and memories swirl out of the book, the patient's story comes alive in a series of flashbacks. We discover that he was once Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler's List), a minor Hungarian nobleman and adventurer, a cartographer working to map North Africa in the restive days leading up to the war. His was an international expedition, and included a British couple: Geoffrey (Colin Firth, Shakespeare in Love) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas, Four Weddings and a Funeral). As the world around them charged headlong to war, Almasy and Katharine had a brief but explosive international affair of their own, ultimately just as doomed as the spirit of international peace and cooperation that made their acquaintance possible in the first place.
As Hana tends her terminal charge, her life is strangely renewed by her life of seclusion, even amidst the lingering destruction of war. A mysterious man named David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire) shows up on her doorstep, bringing a gift of hard-to-come-by eggs. He soon joins the odd quasi-family forming in the ruins of the old monastery. Another addition to the community comes in the form of Lt. Kip Singh (Naveen Andrews, Mighty Joe Young). Kip is responsible for clearing mines, removing unexploded ordnance, and generally making sure that items designed to blow up do not do so. Hana, despite the curse she still fears, starts a tentative romance with the handsome Sikh sapper. All the while her life is dominated by the care of the anonymous Almasy, whose sporadic memories continue to circle about North Africa on the eve of the war like so many grains of sand in a sandstorm of international intrigue, betrayal, and love.
Writer-director Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)) adapted The English Patient from a much beloved novel by Sri Lanka-born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. The novel, by all accounts, is a complex and intriguing work with storylines that intersect, diverge, and collide.
One of the central themes of the novel, and of the film, is the destructive effect of nationality. As war looms, Almasy becomes untrustworthy in the eyes of his British colleagues simply because he is not one of them; there is no small irony in his later misidentification as "the English patient." The artificial force of nationality pushes Hana to trust the mysterious Caravaggio simply because he too is Canadian; it ultimately keeps her from a fruitful relationship with Kip because of the perceived barriers between them. Just as the passions of nations ultimately lead to their downfall, Almasy's fate is sealed when he begins to behave on a personal level the way the nations of the world behave on a global level. Almasy claims to hate ownership more than anything else in the world, and yet it is his desire to possess Katharine that ultimately destroys him. His affair with her is less romance than conquest, and evinces a violence and desperation beneath outward shows of tenderness.
Miramax's new release of The English Patient is a fully loaded, two-disc collector's edition, crammed with a thorough and thoughtful look at the making of the film. Disc One contains the film as well as two commentaries. The more interesting and listener-friendly of these includes Minghella, Ondaatje, and producer Saul Zaentz and was apparently recorded for a laserdisc release of the film. Minghella has also recorded a solo commentary specifically for this release. Both tracks are full of excellent information, and great examples of what serious, film-oriented DVD commentary tracks should be. However, after listening to the group commentary, Minghella's solo effort does seem a bit redundant. I did enjoy Minghella's thoughtful approach; like his film, his reflections have a relatively quiet, almost meditative quality.
This thoughtfulness extends to much of the material on the second disc. There is a lengthy collection of interviews exploring the career and style of author Michael Ondaatje, who becomes a more fascinating literary figure the more people say about him. Ondaatje and others also spend some time discussing the special challenges in adapting his work for the screen. Finally, as a real treat, there is a lengthy segment featuring Ondaatje reading from his novel, which in its own way is probably even more entrancing and captivating than the film itself.
There is a wealth of other interviews and featurettes on the second disc, most dealing with the filmmaking process both as creative and business enterprise. Interview footage abounds, and while it is all very substantive and interesting, it does perhaps get to be a bit much. Thankfully, there are some other areas of interest as well. One in particular that piqued my interest was a featurette about the adventures of the real Count Almasy and the "Cairo Group" of desert explorers. This includes actual photographs and footage of Almasy and his expeditions, as well as a detailed historical account of how a portion of the group went to work for the Allies when war came. Almasy, we learn, landed on Rommel's general staff and provided the Afrika Corps with important geographical information in their attempt to conquer North Africa.
The other special feature that merits special mention is the "Master Class" with Minghella as he discusses his deleted scenes and why they had to be deleted. Rather than just throwing a collection of odds and ends from the cutting room floor onto the disc, Minghella takes the time to explain the decisions he made. In particular, he discusses a scene that was cut from the early part of the film dealing with a folk story of how a poor man in the desert might capture an ostrich; this story served as a sort of recurring motif throughout Minghella's original cut of the film. When it had to be cut for reasons of time, there were repercussions and changes than then had to be made to several later portions of the film as well.
Audio is presented in a pair of robust sound mixes, a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a nice DTS 5.1. Both audio options are good. Minghella, in his comments on making the film, spend a lot of time explaining how important he considers the audio environment. In his view, just as the images on the screen should be able to support themselves with no support from the audio, the soundscape should be able to support itself even in the absence of visual images. Both of the audio tracks do an excellent job of preserving and replicating the painstaking work of Minghella and his collaborators.
Video quality is always difficult to maintain in a film that features so many scenes of bright blue skies and the endless textures of the desert, but for the most part this DVD comes through nicely. There are some minor problems occasionally, such as the occasional noticeable halo from edge enhancement, but nothing glaring or unforgivable. Colors are generally vibrant and lifelike, reds and blacks are strong and vivid without being overpowering, and fine details like sands slowly drifting across the dunes are rendered with acceptable sharpness.
I've not read Michael Ondaatje's novel, but it feels like this film preserves both too much and too little of it. Ondaatje and Minghella mention that there were several more subplots in the original work, many of which had to be pared down or jettisoned altogether. As a result, the bits that are left in, specifically most of the events surrounding Hana and Kip, feel like odd digressions from the main story of Almasy and Katharine. As delightful as I find Juliette Binoche's presence and performance, I can't help but ask why we get so much of her story, when it is treated as a mere framing device. It is almost as if Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride featured extended scenes of Peter Falk as the grandfather wandering about the city on his way to Fred Savage's house, taking a break from telling the story to stop at his favorite watering hole and play cards with his cronies or stopping by a rest home or a cemetery to visit an old girlfriend. They might be moving, fascinating additions to the film, but they would serve to distract from the main focus rather than enhancing it. On the other hand, one can make the case that Almasy and Katharine are such thoroughly unpleasant, unlikable people and their story so oppresses the viewer that we desperately need Binoche's scenes. They are like a breath of fresh air, allowing us to visit someone nice as a respite from the tortured desert soap opera of Fiennes and Scott Thomas. Binoche's gentle sweetness and the tentative nature of her character's relationship with Kip provide us with the only real love story in this film. From what I've been able to gather, it seems that the Hana/Kip relationship occupies a far more central position in Ondaatje's book than in the movie. By shortchanging them, Minghella weakens the part of their story that makes it into the film and makes it seem superfluous. As hard as it may be to say this about a film that already runs almost two and a half hours, perhaps more would have indeed been better. As matters stand, the one relationship that could have been the soul of the film feels a bit superfluous and sketchy.
Bearing that in mind, it becomes very difficult to understand why so many people hail The English Patient as some sort of über-romance. It even landed a spot as number 56 on the AFI "100 Years.100 Passions" list. This makes no sense. The quietly violent affair between Almasy and Katharine is hardly the great, moving love story that so many aficionados of this film have made it out to be. The one true romance has had its legs cut out from under it; we are left with the ugly, grotesque caricature of lust that drives these two to their ultimate doom. It bears repeating that both Fiennes and Scott Thomas give excellent performances, but their characters are so convincingly off-putting and their relationship so mercenary that once can hardly consider it great romantic cinema.
I'll leave the questions of Oscar-worthiness and the Miramax machine for another time. If you're planning to watch The English Patient, do yourself a favor and plan to watch it at least twice; there is so much detail, and so many meanings layered upon meanings, that watching it a second time can be an amazing revelation, almost like watching a completely different film.
Not guilty! The English Patient is a much more complex film than it first seems, with details and themes that may only become apparent through multiple viewings. This Collector's Edition from Miramax is as thorough an exploration of the film as anyone could want.
Review content copyright © 2004 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Writer-Director Anthony Minghella, Producer Saul Zaentz, and Author Michael Ondaatje
* Solo Commentary by Minghella
* "Master Class" Deleted Scenes with Minghella
* CBC Documentary "The Making of The English Patient"
* Author Michael Ondaatje Featurette
* Producer Saul Zaentz Featurette
* Production Designer Stuart Craig Featurette
* Producer Saul Zaentz Featurette
* The Real Count Almasy
* "From Novel to Screenplay" -- Interviews with Cast and Crew
* Filmmaker Conversations
* The Eyes of Phil Brady -- Still Photographer
* Film Reviews
* The Miramax Marketing Machine
* AFI's "100 Years...100 Passions"