Lately I’ve been reminiscing (and writing) about the first time I watched certain best picture winners. I have distinct memories of The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List and Forrest Gump. That’s not the case with The English Patient. I know I’ve seen it before but there’s nothing specifically memorable about the experience.
By 1996 the Academy had been on a 15 year run during which about half the best picture winners fit into a neat and tidy mold. International, historical epics. Period costumes, foreign accents, war, political intrigue. From Gandhi to Dances with Wolves to Schindler’s List. They all had it.
The English Patient feels like it was a film engineered in a lab to meet precise Oscar specifications.
The film begins during the last days of World War II when a plane crashes in the Saharan desert badly burning the pilot, a man who speaks English but has lost his memory. He is cared for by Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French Canadian nurse. She convinces the military to leave him with her at a monastery instead of trying to move him in his condition.
Over time they are joined by a Sikh in the British Army named Kip (Naveen Andrews, aka Sayid from LOST) and a Canadian intelligence operative named David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe, aka Geiger from Speed 2: Cruise Control).
Hana and Kip develop a very sweet romance. It’s the most genuine and compelling part of the film. I could have watched an entire movie about the two of them.
Caravaggio is very interested in “the English patient” (Ralph Fiennes) and questions him from time to time. Hana also talks with him and reads from his cool, leather-bound journal. With all that in place the film has a vehicle for telling his backstory.
It’s a well-worn storytelling technique. Put the protagonist in a position where they have to tell their story to someone in bits and pieces. That story is shown on film in flashback after flashback.
In this crispy fella’s backstory he was Hungarian Count László de Almásy. He’s part of a cartography team mapping the Sahara desert for the British government. If there’s ever been a more Oscar-bait-y leading man I’m not sure who that would have been.
During their time in Libya a British couple joins the expedition, Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas…remember her?). Almásy and Katharine begin an affair.
This is the essence of the backstory. Eventually her husband finds out and tries to crash a plane into the two of them in a murder-suicide.
The Count escapes unscathed but Katherine is badly hurt so the Count puts her in a cave and goes for help. It takes him three days to reach a British military outpost but for some reason he doesn’t use clear and simple words that would explain anything and they suddenly think he’s a German spy.
They put him on a train from which he escapes. He commits treason by trading the maps he was working on to Nazis for gas for a plane and flies back to the cave where she is so totally already dead. He puts her body in the plane, takes off and gets shot down. That’s how he got all burninated.
It’s a tragic tale which of course can only end in an assisted suicide as Hana gives him all the morphine (not all the bacon). In the end Hana and Caravaggio leave his body behind and go to Florence.
There are some seriously contrived moments in the story. The Count and Katherine have to stay behind while most of the team goes for help. It’s also a little convenient that Katherine forgets her anniversary when her husband comes to surprise her. That’s how he discovers the affair.
Kip works as a bomb diffuser for the army. There’s a scene where he’s trying to disarm a bomb but there are tanks approaching causing seismic activity that could send the whole things sky high. Kip’s counterpart waves for the tanks to stop. But they don’t. It’s ridiculous. That being said it’s an incredibly tense scene. I really thought Sayid was going to get blown up… again.
Sometime late in the 2nd act I lost interest in the affair story. At this point I cared much more about the espionage plot and the “present day” love story at the church.
In the last 20 minutes or so there is some ambiguity as to who the English patient really is, but honestly by that point I just didn’t care.
I also found Caravaggio’s motivation confusing. He makes this sinister insinuation that the Count was some sort of spy. The next time we see him he’s happy-go-lucky, dancing with Binoche and the others, carrying the Count around on a stretcher in the rain.
This has the most explicit sexual content in any best picture winner before or since (but I think but I said that about Midnight Cowboy too). This has more, although allocated thriftily as if to shock you right when you’re eyes are about to glaze over. If that’s not bad enough the sexy bits are laced with cheap irony.
In one scene during a Christmas party Katherine and the Count are off in a dark corner doing their best to be stealthy and quite naughty. ”Silent Night” plays in the distance. Get it?
There are a lot of beautiful visuals though. It does it’s best Director Anthony Minghella does his best David Lean impression with wide expanses of desert, high shots of dance floors full of people, candles in seashells lighting a romantic path, aerial shots of sand dunes, Binoche-on-a-rope (below).
A lot of thought went into the cinematography.
This is a gorgeously shot film with excellent action and direction but the story falls apart about ¾ of the way through.
At 2 hours and 40 minutes it could have been a tight, sharp script at 2 hours or even 2:15. But like in other “international, historic, epic” best picture winners like The Last Emperor, Out of Africa and Chariots of Fire, there are too many unnecessary scenes and story elements to sustain any kind of emotional connection to the characters.
I just can’t get emotionally connected to films where the “love story” is founded on adultery. It’s because I can’t root for them.
The movie poster tagline was “In love there are no boundaries.”
I disagree. In fact I think that’s insane. There are some very specific and well-defined boundaries in marriage. These are often called “vows.”
Yes, it’s beautifully shot, well-acted, and rich with history lessons. But how can we cheer for heroes who sell out their friends and nation for an extramarital affair?
At the 1996 Oscars The English Patient dominated with 9 wins on 12 nominations. Its closest competitors were Shine and Fargo, each with seven nominations. Fargo won two, best actress for Frances McDormand, screenplay for the Coen brothers. Shine won one, best actor for Geoffrey Rush.
I remember these Oscars vividly. Well, I should say I remember vividly how disappointed I was that Fargo didn’t win best picture. It’s such a well-crafted original film. I suppose I could take some consolation in the fact that 20+ years later there’s a TV series spinoff from Fargo with more than 50 Emmy nominations and 6 awards including outstanding limited series. The English Patient has largely been forgotten and that’s probably for the best.