The English Patient is a complex, intelligent, and grand motion picture
The English Patient
I had a little trouble sitting through the first hour and a half of this movie, mostly because it seemed to have no direction. This is possibly the most complex movie since The Usual Suspects. The movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end just like every other movie, but The English Patient has its end and beginning mixed around. It begins with its ending, then jumps to its beginning, then back to the end. It continues to do this until we are to the point of frustration, and then it explains everything to us.
For some reason, I didn't expect this movie to be a mystery movie. I thought it was just going to be a dramatic work, but this is one of the most effective mystery movies I have seen in a long time. Because of that reason, I'm pretty sure that The English Patient will walk away with several Oscars, probably including Best Picture. The only real competition up against this movie is Fargo, but since that movie is a comedy, it probably won't win. But there is one Oscar that I hope this movie wins, and I'll tell you which one later.
The English Patient, based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje, begins with a scene where two people are flying in a bi-plane over a vast desert which looks like an ocean of sand. We don't know who these characters are, but their plane is shot down by the English before World War II. The movie jumps to the present day, which is during World War II, around 1944. We meet a nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche, who strikes me as a young Julia Roberts) as she takes care of injured soldiers and other patients of hers. One is a burn victim with scarred skin that looks like a leather mask. He speaks English, so they call him the "English patient"; however, he isn't going to live much longer, and according to Hana, "I must be a curse. Anybody I love or get close to is killed." She decides to setup a small hospital in an old monastery to take care of him.
The rest of the movie is about flashbacks and memories of this English patient, who happens to have a case of amnesia. Found with him is a leather-bound book of the histories of Herodotus, which is filled with pictures, drawings, and other poems and writings that have been pasted or placed in the book. The book is a pivotal tool during the movie, causing the English patient to remember people and events that took place during his life. We learn all the answers to the questions we have asked from his memories. Every question is answered, but I'm sure I'll have to see it again because I missed a lot of things.
The main story is about the mystery of the English patient. He has flashbacks, while reading the book, about Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian map maker for the Royal Geographic Society, but he also sold those maps to the English during the war. Almasy meets newly-wed Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is not satisfied with her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth). You can see the love between Almasy and Katharine almost immediately, but the relationship doesn't really start until they get trapped in a sandstorm, burying their campsite.
Later, we find out that they are the two people in the plane at the beginning of the film, and Almasy is the English patient. There are so many elements to this film that it is impossible to state them all in this review, not that I would want to, because the joy of the film is not knowing. Now that I do know, does it make it any less of a movie for me? No. Because I can go back and see it again, and try and figure out all the answers that I didn't get the first time around. I had so many questions, but I wasn't able to get all the answers for them because I was paying too much attention to the new questions and answers being thrown at me.
Not to be outdone by the story are its actors, who pretty much make the movie what it is. Juliette Binoche was my favorite, and a smile always came across my face whenever she came on screen. That's the Oscar that I hope it wins for, at least, is Best Supporting Actress. I felt that she was the most powerful presence on screen because she had a lot to deal with. Ralph Fiennes plays a dual-type role, one side about a man trying to hide something, and another side about a man trying to bring back those memories which he was trying to hide. Kristin Scott Thomas is superb, and provided one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie, where she is left alone in a cave. However, her performance probably won't win her an Oscar, mainly because she has some fierce competition. Willem Dafoe was one of the weaker actors, but that isn't saying much considering that everyone in the film delivered fine performances.
Writer and director Anthony Minghella does a remarkable job in keeping this film together. It must have been very difficult to film this type of movie, and I admire him for taking on that kind of a job. He has portrayed this film with a lot of emotion and great cinematography. Having to make sure every question is answered must have been hell, but Minghella proves that he is up to the task, and if he doesn't win for Best Director, he'll be sure to win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The English Patient is rated R. For the first hour and a half there really isn't much that is offensive, but after that point, get ready for full frontal nudity and some sex scenes, along with violence and language. Nothing really bothered me in this movie, except for the slowness of some spots. But after the movie was over I realized that those slow spots were essential to the development of the plot. This is definitely one of the best films of 1996.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie