English Patient, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For those who have forgotten the depth of romance and passion that the movies are capable of conveying, Anthony Minghella's The English Patient can remedy the situation. This is one of the year's most unabashed and powerful love stories, using flawless performances, intelligent dialogue, crisp camera work, and loaded glances to attain a level of eroticism and emotional connection that many similar films miss.

Is The English Patient melodramatic? Of course, but it's the sort of finely-honed melodrama that embraces viewers rather than smothering them. And the movie never resorts to cheap, manipulative tactics. This well-crafted story, brought to the screen with great care by British playwright and director Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) and based on the prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, serves up the love of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a way that is simultaneously epic and intimate.

The English Patient has an elliptical structure, beginning with the same scene that it ends with. In between, it moves several years into the future, and even further into the past. The opening sequence, which takes place during World War II, shows a British plane being shot down over the North African desert. The pilot, a Hungarian count named Laszlo Almasy, is badly burned in the ensuing crash. Years later, in 1944 Italy, we meet him again. Although his outward injuries have healed, leaving his features scarred beyond recognition, he is dying. He has also supposedly lost his memory. Hana (Juliette Binoche), the Canadian nurse who cares for him, takes him to an isolated, abandoned church to allow him to die in peace. There, injecting him with morphine and reading to him from his beloved volume of Herodotus, Hana seeks to seeks to stimulate his memories. Meanwhile, others arrive at the church -- a mysterious, crippled war veteran named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who has a hidden agenda, and a pair of bomb experts, the British Sgt. Hardy (Kevin Whately) and his Sikh superior, Kip (Naveen Andrews), who becomes Hana's lover.

Eventually, through dreams and waking flashbacks, Almasy's memories come flooding back, although Caravaggio asserts that he hasn't really forgotten anything -- he just wants to forget. The story then flip-flops between the present and a period during the late-'30s and early- '40s, when Almasy is part of a British map-making effort surveying the Sahara. It's then that he meets Katharine Clifton, the wife of a good-natured pilot (Colin Firth) who is helping with the project. Almasy and Katharine fall for each other, and the stage is set for a classic exploration of love and betrayal set against the dangerous background of Nazi aggression.

The one flaw in The English Patient is related to an aspect of the structure. The "modern-day" scenes with Almasy awaiting death aren't as nearly as involving as the flashback sequences. The relationship between Hana and Kip lacks the intensity of the central romance, primarily because neither of them is a fully-realized character. As a result, the scenes that take place in this time frame, some of which are quite lengthy, can be seen as unwanted interruptions.

As is necessary for a movie of this tone and style, the acting is strong. Ralph Fiennes gives us an Almasy who seems loosely based on Casablanca's Rick -- strong and silent until the right woman releases all of his pent-up passion. Fiennes is the kind of actor who likes challenging himself with each new role (he has essayed vastly different personalities in Schindler's List, Quiz Show, and Strange Days), and his work in The English Patient represents a continuation of that trend. Kristen Scott Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral), sporting faux blonde hair, is luminous as Katharine, effortlessly conveying to the audience the energy and zest for life that Almasy finds irresistible. Together, these two are hotter than the desert heat that simmers around them.

Juliette Binoche (Blue) is delightful as Hana, although her character is frustratingly ill-developed. Willem Dafoe (Tom and Viv), the only American in the cast, plays the kind of mysterious role he has become accustomed to (primarily because he does it so well). Solid supporting performances are turned in by Naveen Andrews as Kip, Colin Firth (Pride and Prejudice), as Katharine's husband, and Julian Wadham (The Madness of King George) as Almasy's best friend, Madox.

The English Patient is the sort of intelligent, epic love story that seems so rare these days. There's something about this film that lingers long after the end credits have rolled -- a desire to re- experience all the feelings generated by the movie, perhaps. One of the reasons for The English Patient's power is that it strikes universal chords. This motion picture is yet another example of how the patience of movie-goers, after being sorely tried during the first eight mediocre months of 1996, is being rewarded by a surge of excellent end-of-the-year releases.

English Patient, The (United States, 1996)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: 1996-11-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1