An epic romance period drama, star-crossed lovers, a host of renowned actors with beautiful scenery and a stunning soundtrack; aka the perfect combination for the biggest prize in Hollywood.
Written by Tresca Mallon
The English Patient follows a group of people stuck in an abandoned monastery at the end of the Second World War. Baron Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) is dying and burnt beyond recognition from a plane crash. Hana (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse, is caring for him. Flashing back and forth from this present to the past, Almásy, a Hungarian Baron and explorer, and Katherine Clifton (Kristen Scott-Thomas), a married woman, have a doomed but passionate love affair. Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh soldier charged with clearing mines and explosives, and David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who lost his thumbs during a German interrogation and blames Almásy, arrive some time later. Alongside Hana they bear witness to Almásy’s story.
The backdrop of much of the film is a rather romantic view of an Egypt colonised by the British. Unlike it’s 1986 counterpart, Out of Africa, The English Patient does not fall into the trap of a white saviour narrative. While at no point condemning the imperialism which surrounds them, they are also not presented as heroes to the native population. In addition, there is at least a small amount of homage paid to the Arabic and Egyptian culture.
There is no doubt The English Patient is a technically brilliant film. It boasts an epic soundtrack and the production design is incredible. Both add a sense of drama (at times melodrama) that is not always present in the plot. It employs a dual narrative structure, as the story jumps from the characters’ past to their present. Despite being at least a half hour too long, neither story line is satisfyingly developed. The action is slow-burning to the point that it is, at times, stagnant.
Despite its narrative pitfalls, this film is wonderfully acted. With the titans of cinema that make up the cast it would be difficult to make a terrible film. Fiennes is heartbreakingly tragic in his scenes as a patient. The dialogue in the core romance between Scott-Thomas and Fiennes is gorgeously poetic and both give layered and compelling performances. Fiennes, in the past scenes, ramps up the intensity to an almost creepy level, which Scott-Thomas manages to simmer to a sensual and satisfying medium. However, the character of Katherine Clifton, beyond the Baron, is not developed. This is in part a casualty of the narrative perspective. However, the lack of depth in her character shallows the depths of their epic romance.
Conversely, the parallel relationship between Hana and Kip is much more authentic. Juliette Binoche is incredibly charming and adds a level of levity to a film which is otherwise pretty intense. Her relationship with Kip is unfortunately not given enough space to develop. Can someone make a Hana and Kip 20-years-on spin off?
I will never complain about seeing Willem Dafoe in a film. He is basically incapable of giving a poor performance. However, his character was a bit of a spare part that didn’t contribute hugely to the narrative.His flashback certainly provided one of the most gruesome and tense scenes, however, it was tonally at odds with the rest of the film.
Despite the powerhouse performances the English Patient is a rather forgettable best picture winner, 1997 was a weak year for Best Picture Nominees. The English Patient’s major competitors were Jerry Maguire and Fargo (which would have been my personal pick). Given the mammoth films Braveheart and Titanic, which won in 1996 and 1998, it is unlikely that this film would have had the incredible level of success in a more competitive year. The English Patient is beautifully crafted, with multiple compelling story lines. Unfortunately, it tried to do too much at once and nothing to complete satisfaction.