The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)

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If ever a film’s reputation preceded it, indeed for much of my life, here ’tis. Sorry to briefly bore you with this, but quite apart from the Seinfeld non-endorsement, my seventh grade English teacher made a point during a class in 1997 to instruct us all never to watch The English Patient. “Here’s what happens in this movie: ‘I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, which man do I want, who are you, oops plane crash, oops abandoned in a cave, now I’m dead.'” She was livid, and this always stood out for me against the backdrop of how much my mom and sister were itching to see the film for several months in the same period. (Ms. Ellison’s rant so overshadowed all my other thoughts about the movie that I cannot recall if any family members ever actually saw it.) It’s hard for a movie to live down that kind of influential prejudice, the upshot being that I never bothered to let it try. The conventional wisdom eventually caught up with my teacher: the word most commonly conjured up in relation to the late Anthony Minghella’s big Oscar bait move is “boring.” So the better part of two decades later, I broke our class’ collective promise, and that’s not even the bad part: I didn’t find the movie even remotely boring, indeed found it decent and intelligent and unmistakably well-intentioned as more than just an awards siren. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t surprised — or that I think the movie deserved its Oscar sweep, which it didn’t.

Boredom, really, is the least of the problems with Patient; though I groaned when I saw the 160-minute running time, one of the biggest issues here is that the parallel-story structure really demands more breathing room than the window provided. We open in the waning days of WWII, watching over a wide-eyed, emotionally exhausted young nurse who tends to a wayward burn victim carrying the classic romance-picture trope of a mysterious-sexy past. Flashbacks to the superhero origin story of Count Laszlo (Ralph Fiennes, tremendous with and without layers of bandage) form the meat of the story. Evidently he mucked around with a fellow geographer, Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), which landed him in trouble with her loving but unimaginative (nearly platonic, it seems) husband Colin Firth (Colin Firth), who had a case of plane rage and, well, the rest plays out more or less as Ms. Ellison implied. But meanwhile, back in the “present,” our nurse (Juliette Binoche) is rocked to her core by the operatic revelations in Laszlo’s fireside anecdotes, and meanwhile takes the hand of a sensitive bomb specialist named Kip (Naveen Andrews); now the film’s about their affair, kind of, and Kip’s wavering nervousness about his work, and nurse Hana’s renewal of identity and faith in Love, and then Willem Dafoe shows up at the villa where they’re staying to charge that the reason he is missing both of his thumbs is none other than you, sir (dramatic cue) and all of this happens in the same movie.

It would all make perfect sense, presumably, in the novel; the meditative premise would lend itself to a certain rapturous self-examination in prose. But you can see why the Weinstein machine wanted to make Hollywood hay of all this; it’s nuts! Instead of a series of events gathering deeply under some thematic blanket, the movie cuts right through to find the good stuff, and the result is a lurching, hyperactive mess — but a lovely mess! — that tries to gather too many characters and arcs with too little detail in too little time, which makes it feel frantic and overstuffed. If one were teaching a class about the problems of adapting a detailed and intricate novel to film, this would make a fascinating case study. I’m sure much was pared down for the translation to screen, as it always is, but what’s striking and not altogether successful is writer-director Minghella’s determination to put all of the film’s hazy devotion behind all of its various episodes. It’s a noble enough pursuit but it’s not as if the thesis here would suffer if the Count’s past had been suggested a little more wispily, or if Hana’s chronologically leaping side story were cut down. It would be a pity as both make for an absorbing and separate movie, but they don’t really gel.

The desert sequences in Egypt and Libya — the Fiennes-Thomas parts of the story, in other words — amount to a much livelier variation on Out of Africa with a more interesting story that appeals to the side of us that wished the Indiana Jones films took the mundane portions of their archaeological back stories more seriously. There are even more than a few shades of a straight adventure film here, including an impressive set piece centering upon the rescue of a few team members trapped in a truck buried under sand, but this aspect of the narrative is quickly discarded and thereafter only implied; it’s less important that Thomas dies in an ancient cave after a plane crash than that she lies in wait of her lover. The time period and the conceit of cave-drawing discovery help make all this absorbing even if you don’t much care who’s fucking whom, which you likely will because the two important characters are three-dimensional and interesting and who the hell wants Colin Firth to get the girl?

Meanwhile, though Minghella’s remembered as something of an actor’s director (and I believe it, given the general caliber of these performances), his visual style is quite engagingly kitschy, and gives its story a romantic exuberance that calls back to old Hollywood, indeed Hollywood of the period being depicted herein. More than anything, Minghella strikes an intriguing balance of holding his subjects at enough of a distance, in the manner of David Lean, that the film affects an aesthetic picture-postcard pleasure, yet unlike Lean also making you feel as if you are living in this world, and that the relations between the people being introduced to us matter and are a timeless breed of the frailty and marital discomfort that must befall even the most worldly and privileged. The complex relationship of time and love and pain and memory believably haunt every moment as Minghella envisions it; there’s something eerily charged in his (and of course novelist Michael Ondaatje’s) feelings about the permanence of these emotions.

Then a few things happen: First, Willem Dafoe enters with a bizarre back story of the Melrose Place school that never makes a hell of a lot of sense but has something to do with Ralph Fiennes stealing his imagination and his thumbs? He has come seeking revenge, but his eleventh-hour conflict would be superfluous even in a film with a more linear structure. (Again I stress, this criticism likely doesn’t apply to his assumed presence in the novel.) While editor Walter Murch has painstakingly rendered this narrative somehow cohesive despite dozens of flashbacks and seemingly arbitrary chronological jumps from her to eternity, it’s just more than we need. It’s like an Annie Hall in the heated-up waning days of the war (the pensive and eerie calm of which are palpable) if they’d kept the murder mystery in it. Even as we make these ginormous leaps back to the fall of 1939 and earlier, we gather up more and more plot threads as we move.

That begs this additional question: since when was a juicy love triangle not enough for a movie? In this one, it’s not, because we of course busy it up with another fevered romance between Hana and the sapper, and incidentally her insecurity about causing the death of everyone around her is far too disconnected from the remainder of the story to keep the audience on board. This audience member, anyway; I liked Binoche and Andrews just fine (and enjoyed the weird Beauty and the Beast moment of her swinging around to dig the walls) but I kept forgetting, or failing to understand, how their plight connected to everything else — and that exchange they have about why he never comes to find her in the night seems to require us to know more about their nature than we possibly can, given how much our time with them is obstructed by other matters. This movie isn’t a terribly skilled multitasker.

Back in the past, which feels like the main event rather than the wraparound, Minghella either sacrifices or earns the world’s attention when he suddenly decides he’s making a bodice-ripper for the popcorn set and goes insane on the lurid daytime soap opera stuff. Given how many orders of magntitude less embarrassing (and more fun) any hyperventilating romantics are than the charmless idiocy of the last two Best Picture winners, it’s hard to object to this, and at least it does acknowledge adult behaviors and desires — making something like Dances with Wolves seem even more childish. But fine, it’s silly-romantic junk obviously, treating us to Ralph Fiennes saying things like “I can still taste you” and sticking his fingers inside Kristin Scott Thomas’ mouth, but hey, it has the courage to own all this in stark contrast to the staid restraint of most Hollywood prestige romances.

Plus: it should be stressed that what we know of the characters is strong and sensible and all of the actors are terrific — and I personally was pleased, perhaps too much, that neither of the female leads is remotely a cipher. Katharine is a vivacious, refined, independent-minded woman whose sexual longings are never frowned upon here except as the source for much of her guilt later in the film; Minghella has the courage to see past gradual evolutions in social mores to find the naked universality in nothing more than sexual frustration. Though the parallels with Binoche are tenuous, hers is a similarly sophisticated character, gentle and fearful but driven, compassionate. (And to be honest, I don’t ever mind spending lots and lots of time with Binoche.)

Though Murch did a wonderful job putting all this together, the story’s still rich and complicated and overly thin-spread enough that I honestly feel The English Patient would work better as a miniseries — or even something along the lines of what Raúl Ruiz did with Mysteries of Lisbon. It never comes close to resembling a single-conflict story and is if anything a surprisingly vague piece of narrative to become such a successful mainstream American film. What it does have is a single thesis, and it’s essentially the same as Casablanca: that no interpersonal difficulty is too small to be immune from war. They frankly said it with more eloquence and panache in 1942, but god bless them for trying.

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