The English Patient (1996)

It's hard to separate a movie from the hype surrounding it. I had been waiting to see The English Patient for a long time before it came out. Truly, Madly, Deeply, by director Anthony Minghella is a great little film that has had a great deal of favorable attention on video (if you thought Ghost was great, Truly, Madly, Deeply will blow you out of the water). Ralph Fiennes has had a singularly meteoric rise since Schindler's List and through one of last year's best films, Strange Days. Kristin Scott Thomas owned Four Weddings and a Funeral. And Juliette Binoche took us through real heartbreak in Kieslowski's Blue. Furthermore, critics and others described the film in glowing terms, as a magnificent love story with the scope and fire of Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia. Now it's going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Can any film live up to that hype? Probably not. Secrets & Lies does this year, as does Fargo. The English Patient does not. In fact, it didn't even crack my top twenty for the year. I'd like to take this opportunity to list films that were better than The English Patient just this year. Hopefully, somebody out there might seek them out on video and see what the Academy overlooked this year. In addition to the aforementioned Secrets & Lies and Fargo, Big Night, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Sling Blade, Beautiful Thing, Jerry Maguire, Heavy, Dead Man, Set It Off, Kids in the Hall Brain Candy, Get on the Bus, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Evita, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, The Cable Guy, Flirting with Disaster, Stealing Beauty, Heaven's Prisoners, Twister, Lone Star, Antonia's Line, Emma, Swingers, and The Young Poisoner's Handbook are all better, more complete films than The English Patient.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the Academy is obsessed with finding a film with huge scope. Instead of looking for what's the best film (and, admittedly, they've done better than they have in previous years this time), they want an "event." And The English Patient has all the elements of a critics' darling event film. Love, war, sex, death, loyalty, betrayal, hopeless loss, and blah, blah, blah.

Some people have criticized the film for having an improper political focus. That's a valid criticism, but I still feel that if a film works, this kind of pernicious fictional/historical revisionism is a secondary issue. Certainly, The English Patient falls down on these grounds, but it wasn't ruined.

What ruins The English Patient, or keeps it from ascending to the four-star range, is that the main love story is so bloodless and boring that almost everything else in the movie transcends it. The sweep and scope of the film keep bumping up against this huge barrier to enjoying the film. Kristin Scott Thomas looks uncomfortable through most of the film. Her usual ability to bring deep undercurrents of emotion to the screen, best exemplified by her telling Hugh Grant she loves him in Four Weddings, is completely missing here. There's no chemistry with Ralph Fiennes. And Fiennes himself seems to be sleepwalking. Whoever thought he deserved a Best Actor nomination for this oddly detached loser character was probably wacky on the junk. If this were his first film, he would have gotten no recognition for it whatsoever. Not that it would have killed his career; he's been brilliant and will be again. But it's really nothing spectacular. Forget the fact that his character, Laszlo de Almasy, was really a Nazi sympathizer who ruined lives and betrayed his friends--Fiennes can't even make him fall in love. And that's what's necessary.

That said, the film is absolutely gorgeous. The desert and the geography of the human body coincide provocatively. War and the people involved in it are intertwined in a profound way. And the underlying love story, between nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) and bomb defuser Kip (Naveen Andrews) is charming, and would have been the perfect complement to the main story if Fiennes and Scott Thomas had been up to it. Sadly, they weren't, and the film misses its big opportunity. The English Patient is well worth seeing for what's there, but it can't come together with this huge flaw.


Links for The English Patient

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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