Saturday 19 December 2015

Movie Review: The English Patient (1996)

A grand romance for the ages, The English Patient is a complex, layered story of an impossible love found and lost in the shadow of war. The Michael Ondaatje novel is given the royal screen treatment, and the remarkable ballad wrapped in mystery is powerful enough to carry the weight of an epic film.

With World War II raging in Italy, Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) is helping to treat and transport injured soldiers, but loses two friends in quick succession. Close to despair, she decides to care for a badly injured man (Ralph Fiennes), suffering from severe burns and loss of memory, and known only as "the English patient" due to his accent. The man sustained his injuries after being shot out of the sky over the North African desert. Hana installs her bed-ridden patient in an abandoned countryside monastery to wait out the war, and reads to him to pass the time.

His memories gradually return, and the film unfolds in two parallel time frames. In flashback, the patient is revealed to be Count László Almásy, a Hungarian cartographer. Just before the start of the war, he was a member of a Royal Geographical Society expedition searching for ancient caves in the North African desert, along with fellow researcher Peter Madox (Julian Wadham) and financier Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth). The quiet, introverted Almásy falls deeply in love with Clifton's lively wife Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and they start a passionate affair as war erupts all around them.

Back at the monastery, Hana and her patient start to attract a crowd. First they are joined by David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), an Allied agent who suffered at the hands of the Germans and is pursuing his now personal mission. And then a squadron of British bomb-disposal experts, led by a Sikh soldier named Kip (Naveen Andrews), sets up camp at the monastery to clear the area of unexploded mines. Hana and Kip are attracted to each other despite her worry that everyone she loves ends up badly hurt. Meanwhile, as Almásy loses his remaining strength and will to live, he reveals the final chapter of his love affair with Katharine.

Written and directed by Anthony Minghella and running a mammoth 162 minutes, The English Patient is a stunning achievement. The pace is slow, the structure convoluted, the characters complicated and conflicted, and the settings a combination of harsh desert, North African cities on edge, and a rural Italy suffering through the chaos of war. Minghella weaves the film together from a starting point of seemingly disparate, disconnected threads and gradually creates a magical tapestry of love flourishing in the midst of a world obsessed with death.

To convey a sense of an enormous personal tragedy unfolding within a great global conflict, Minghella adopts a ponderous, almost lethargic approach. Every scene is stretched out, and many scenes come and go while appearing to add little. Secondary characters drop in and drop out after contributing just the tiniest of additional context.

But the little increments ever so slowly add up to an impressive big picture, and Minghella adds some spectacular, punchy set-pieces, including steamy sex scenes, a disturbing chapter in a Nazi torture chamber, overturned vehicles in the unforgiving desert, merciless sandstorms, an attempted murder-suicide, and finally a madding encounter with wartime British bureaucracy at its worst.

By the time The English Patient enters its third hour, an impressive momentum is in full steam. The illicit love affair between Almásy and Katharine has taken hold, war has erupted, Caravaggio's story hints at a terrible secret yet to be revealed, while Hana and Kip are taking all manner of risks in the name of love and war.

If some elements of the film feel familiar, it's because Minghella clearly has David Lean on his mind. The English Patient is a respectful amalgam of the majestic desert-as-domineering-backdrop from Lawrence Of Arabia and romance-amidst-turmoil from Doctor Zhivago, with the plight of intense personalities competing with historic events and grand vistas.

The performances are good without being great. Ralph Fiennes does well to convey a resigned yet still acerbic attitude as the badly disfigured protagonist under a ton of make-up in the monastery scenes. He is less interesting as the perpetually glum cartographer in the flashbacks, barely coming out of his shell to fall in love with Katharine. Kristen Scott Thomas is adequate without fully presenting a convincing argument as to why Katharine would fall for Almásy. Juliette Binoche is better, and creates in Hana a woman at the limit of being able to cope with the war of others, and therefore taking matters into her own hands, consequences be damned. Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews and Colin Firth all add vigour and energy, but not much in the way of depth.

Once The English Patient reaches its conclusion, the strength of the romance is passionately palpable and quite moving. The story of the Count and Katharine ends where it starts, in a small plane zipping across the desert, caught in an uncontrollable spiral of violence. The English Patient is both enormously bloated and extraordinarily magnificent.

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