And now, my top 10 reasons for liking Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient,” which is now available on video.
1. It looks nice.
I’m starting with the most obvious. Even the detractors of this film, and I’ve met plenty, agree that it is a work of visual beauty. Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seales made it look every bit as luscious as “Out of Africa,” another epic romance with flying scenes. (However, some of this is bound to be lost on a television screen.)
2. It tackles big themes.
No matter what the trailers tried to convey, Minghella’s film, which is based on Michael Ondaatje’s dream-like novel, isn’t just another story about two people in love. Love (or, more correctly, lust) plays a big part, but so do grief, alienation, longing, desire, fear, courage, determination, betrayal and loyalty. And all of this is wrapped in the giant cocoon of a world at war.
3. I empathize with the protagonists.
“I just hated the two leads,” said one amateur critic, referring to star-crossed lovers Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas). “They were jerks.” Maybe. But I submit that it’s easier to judge people than it is to study why they are the way they are and then finding compassion for their weaknesses. Minghella gives us ample clues about Almasy’s insular snobbery (he vibrates with inhibited emotions) and Katherine’s seemingly easy infidelity. Both are in pain, and their ultimate connection acts like a life-cleansing salve. That is the basis of their mutual need.
4. Their struggle is universal.
Even as they embark on their adulterous affair, Almasy and Katherine spend as much time resisting their attraction as actually enjoying it. Each has a personal reason for not wanting to face the kind of vulnerability that intimacy demands, not to mention the kind of pain that usually results when such affairs run their course. Most of us, if we care to admit it, have experienced something similar.
5. Minghella is a magician.
If you’ve read any part of Ondaatje’s book, you can see that he paid little attention to plot. But most films, especially those that win Hollywood awards, are plot-driven. In adapting Ondaatje’s novel, Minghella did what some critics thought impossible: He pulled a credible storyline from a book that reads like a meditation.
6. It doesn’t speak down to us.
A common trait among second-rate filmmakers is the need to explain everything. You know, by using unnecessary exposition such as, “Remember that time in high school where we both loved the same girl and you took advantage of my infection down there to ask her out, which set me on a course that ultimately resulted in my becoming an alcoholic?” Minghella gives us only what we need, and then he invites us to fill in between the lines.
7. The acting is superb.
This may be the most subjective category of all. But I appreciate the interplay between Fiennes and Thomas, Fiennes and Julette Binoche, Binoche and Naveen Andrews, Binoche and Willem Dafoe and some other supporting roles. Only Binoche and Thomas won acting awards, Binoche taking the Best Supporting Oscar, the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and them sharing the National Board of Review Best Actress honor. But that hardly detracts from the other performance, especially Fiennes’.
8. It doesn’t star Chris Farley.
Not to pick on the goofy comic, who has made me laugh on occasion, but “The English Patient” is a serious attempt by first-rate talent to make a film for adults.
9. I’m a Baby Boomer.
OK, so that makes me a sucker for World War II movies.
10. There will be no sequel.
This is self-explanatory, right?
The English Patient
This World War II romantic drama has the epic feel of classic cinema. It stars Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List”) as a surveyor/archaeologist who, caught up in the war, ends up as a severely wounded patient in a remote French monastery. His nurse, played by the Oscar-winning Juliette Binoche, tends him as she strives to survive her own emotional wounds. The plot travels in time and space - over a half-dozen years and two continents - to flesh out the experiences of the numerous other characters who play parts in both their lives.
But it never loses its central theme, which involves the messy ways in which we live out our existences, especially in light of how those existences are affected by world cataclysm.
An enduring work that aches with passion, pain, unbearable loss, sudden death and desperate joy, “English Patient” is overly long but ultimately winning due to its expert direction, stunning cinematography and superb acting. Winner of nine Oscars, including those for Best Picture and Best Director. Rated R
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