The English Patient – Art 2/5 Ent 3/5 Worth 4/5
I’ll say it, The English Patient is a flawed attempted masterpiece that was in reach of its own goal line. Perceived as just another one of those generally milquetoast films that receive beaucoup Oscars, it’s judged inappropriately in perpetuum for its association with other rubbish films the geezers at the Academy patronize with statues. We hold it cripplingly to a higher standard, when out of the spotlight (where it belongs: it’s one of the highest grossing films to never be in the top 5 at the box office) the cracks in its presentation don’t engulf into canyons of failure. Judged as a simple historical romance with a blizzard of time shifts in parallel stories (necessitating the smoothing over of constantly enormous jumps in editing), it’s really not that bad of a film. Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas had an obvious chemistry, and you can easily get wrapped up in their illicit intimacy, but if you know their work that was almost expected. This was the first film I saw with Fiennes as an heroic figure, and he wore it well, but of course he wore the heavy makeup as a burn victim far better. He’s always at his best as some sort of brow-less mutant.
But its problems start simply with the blameless poor timing by writer Michael Ondaatje, for designing an ahistorical biography of a real person, Count Laszlo de Almasy, who as it turns out was actually batting for the other team (sexually) and would at best probably be a great co-commiserator for Kristin Scott Thomas and someone to go to the Opera or musicals with. The adaptation (written and directed by Anthony Minghella, and production overseen extensively by Ondaatje) took too much poetic license by truncating storylines and characters to make them near insensible caricatures. Almasy’s love-convulsions of bitterness towards the end of the pre-war romance storyline get increasingly inexplicable and histrionic. Naveen Andrews’ character Kip, likely an avatar of conscience and grounding for Ondaatje in the novel, is especially trimmed, but to excesses that render the film incomprehensible. In the novel, as an Indian he becomes disillusioned with his place in a white European Army after the Americans nuke Japan, assuming they only did it because they’re Asian (all indications point to us actually intending for the Manhattan Project to defeat Germany first, then Japan). Yet in the film, Kip just gets kind of emo after losing a friend to a mine, and ditches the scene in careless fashion. Ironically, the real Almasy actually lost one of his lovers in the Wehrmacht in precisely those circumstances.
If Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply, The Talented Mr. Ripley) could not escape a pedestrian vision on the page, he did manage at times to do so with the camera. The opening scene of the plane in the desert, and the adoring shots of rustic Italy – like Juliette Binoche playing the piano in the bombed out cottage – expose a bit of unrealized potential for Minghella in further projects that just did not arrive. Being the butt of many jokes does nothing favorable for this film’s legacy: from a cynical iconoclastic reference on Seinfeld – slicing its sails after the fawning praise of the Academy sweep – to the fact that we all knew somebody who was taken by surprise after the Oscar sweep, went to see it, and proceeded to talk shit about it because they expected more war, less drama or whatever. The English Patient could have used a little tidying, but its flaws are somewhat forgivable and endearing.